Critical is as critical does

I have a wee bit of a critical bone lodged somewhere between my hypothalamus and spleen. Some days it lies dormant. Other days, it has a mind of its own, and I find myself being critical of a myriad of, well, things—someone’s attire, a crooked wall-hanging, a poorly placed comma, the maneuvering skills of the driver in front of me. I rarely voice the criticisms (for real, Mom!), but I’ve begun to wonder: Does not voicing my criticisms really make me less critical? And, when exactly is it OK to be critical? Ever? Yes? No? Maybe?

As a writer, I’ve heard the phrase “constructive criticism” a bazillion times. It’s one way—likely the most important way—in which my writing has grown. “Keep in mind all the giant red marks you see on this paper here are simply ‘constructive criticisms.'” Translation: “This story really, really bites, but its salvageable, maybe.”

Writers always receive criticism. It’s how we improve our craft. And, we know we can always be better. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of using the phrase “constructive criticism,” particularly as I mentor young writers. It’s unfortunate that something meant to improve a person or a person’s skills has such a negative connotation.

“To criticize,” according to Mr. Webster, is “1) to consider the merits and demerits of and judge accordingly; 2) to find fault with; and 3) to point out the faults of.” Those are harsh actions. Especially since criticisms are subjective in nature. They’re based on a person’s opinions of what something should or should not be. Sure, those opinions might be researched and substantiated, but at the end of the day, they’re still opinions.

Which means criticism needs to be thought out before delivered. Your mom taught you that “If you can’t say something nice, than you shouldn’t say it at all,” and she was right. Criticism works the same way. If what you have to say will help another person improve his/her skills or situation, great! Think about saying it. Think about what the other person might think when hearing it. Think about what you’d think if someone said the same thing to you. Doing all that thinking might keep you from actually verbalizing the criticism. And, if that’s the case, great! You didn’t need to voice it anyway.

For all you writers out there, criticism—constructive or not—is simply a part of life. For one opinion voiced, at least two criticisms abound. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles (or any other cliché you prefer about things being the way they are).

Am I being overly critical of being critical? Ha. Maybe. Are all criticisms created equal? No. Can criticism create growth? Definitely. Improvement? Vastly.

Is this a “Get out of Jail Free” card to be as critical as you want to be toward those around you because you’re really “just helping” them out? Doubtfully. If you want to be critical, you should probably start with yourself. That’s likely where the real issue resides.

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3 thoughts on “Critical is as critical does

  1. Potlicker says:

    i think it’s really a matter of perspective. if you can actually write well and correctly being critical is just natural. for those of us (me) who find it somewhat elusive to write correctly with all the right punctuation and rules and everything i don’t even try to be critical in that way. i tend to like the Stanford findings (i think it was Standford) that if the beginning and ending letters are there it doesn’t matter what’s in between. but i would be the first one to criticize someones idea about something while the actual presentation of that idea i would not know enough to criticize it. you make a great point though and one i should DEFINITELY put into practice more; taking my time and being thoughtful about criticism… no matter how constructive it might be;) (just so you know, spell check has had to correct my spelling of criticize every time i wrote it, including this one.)

  2. Anonymous says:

    This post is horrible.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Do you think the above anonymous is being critical or just constructive? This is too deep for me, I’m going to TB.

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