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.