Friday, September 5, 2014


Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at
If there was one word that filled me with terror when I was younger, it was ‘criticism.’  What could be worse than having people point out your flaws? And there were a lot of people who did criticize me.  Criticism felt like being made fun of, except that it was generally true—which made it hurt even more.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll understand that shudder you get when you hear someone ask, “May I offer you some criticism?”

Now, you’ve probably heard of something called “constructive criticism.” As far as I was concerned, this was just as bad, because even though the goal of it is to help you improve, you’re still basically being told that you suck. Today, I’m here to share with you what took me years and years to learn:  criticism is good. 

I know, I know.  How can it be good to have people point out your flaws? 

First, let’s revisit the idea of constructive criticism.  Here is the definition of ‘criticism,’ courtesy of

(1.) the act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything.
(2.) the act of passing severe judgment; censure; faultfinding.
(3.) the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of a literary or artistic work, musical performance, art exhibit, dramatic production, etc.
(4.) a critical comment, article, or essay; critique.
(5.) any of various methods of studying texts or documents for the purpose of dating or reconstructing them, evaluating their authenticity, analyzing their content or style, etc.: historical criticism; literary criticism.
(6.) investigation of the text, origin, etc., of literary documents, especially Biblical ones: textual criticism.

You are, as many people are, probably most aware of the first two definitions of ‘criticism.’  They certainly are cringe-worthy definitions, too. Passing judgment? Severe judgment? Faultfinding? All of this sounds absolutely terrible! Where does the constructive part come in? 

Constructive criticism is most closely tied to definition (3.): “the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of a literary or artistic work, musical performance, art exhibit, dramatic production, etc.”  Note how this uses the far gentler words ‘analyzing’ and ‘evaluating.’  Yes, it still includes ‘judging,’ but you see that it is more about looking for quality than anything else.  The goal of constructive criticism is to point out ways to improve the quality of the work.  To do this, you have to look for the bad in order to remove it and make the work better. So yes, there is still faultfinding involved. The point of it, however, is to build the quality up—hence ‘constructive’—rather than to tear you down.

Are you like I used to be, and still think constructive criticism is just thinly veiled cruelty? Consider this scenario. 

You are baking a cake.  When you take it out of the oven, it’s a nasty, dry, coarse mess. “That’s strange,” you think, looking over the cookbook. “I’ve followed all the directions.”  So you try again, being doubly sure to follow the directions.  Unfortunately, it happens again.  You know the cake isn’t right, but you don’t want anyone else to tell you why, because then you’ll feel like a failure.  Besides, you want to figure it out on your own. 

However, while you attempt another cake, an experienced baker watches you.  Then, while you’re working, the baker says, “You’re using the wrong kind of flour for this cake.  Also, you aren’t using the proper technique for measuring flour.  Let me show you what to do.” 

The baker has just criticized you.  Was it because he wanted to be mean?  Did he want to take your mistakes and shove them in your face? 

No.  The baker can see that you’re struggling.  He can see how badly you want to make the best cake ever, and so he shows you what you’re doing wrong.  Then, he shows you how to do it the right way. That’s constructive criticism at its finest.  Afterwards, your cake is amazing.  Thanks to the baker’s criticism, you now know how to make an awesome cake. 

Now, my mom can tell you a lot of anecdotes about my epic freak-outs in the kitchen whenever she tried to help me bake.  I would get so frustrated—why the heck couldn’t she let me figure it out on my own? Granted, when my baking attempts flopped, I was even more furious. 

I was not good not at accepting criticism,  much in the same way rocks are not good at levitating. But once I started listening to the criticism—even when it made me mad—I ended up improving.

Somewhere along the way, it clicked that criticism is not bad.  It’s a wonderful gift.  Can it hurt sometimes? Yeah. Heck yeah.  So does working out, but the more you work out, the less pain you feel and the stronger you get.  

So, don’t sweat it if someone offers you criticism.  They aren’t doing it to be mean.  They want to help you improve, to reach your full potential. 

With writing, criticism is the only way you’ll improve.  Not all critics agree, so you’ll have to choose which ones to listen to.  You can receive criticism from actual people, and you can read books that give you advice (generalized criticism).

Either way, you’ll need to embrace constructive criticism.  It might not be easy at first, but the benefits far outweigh the draw-backs.  Take it from me.

Do you struggle with accepting criticism?  Do you have any questions about what makes criticism constructive as opposed to destructive? Share your thoughts in the comments. 

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  1. I do have some trouble accepting criticism from adults. Which, really, is usually because they can't get past the mutant turtle concept to offer advice on the actual writing. So to be honest, I don't find many people to give real constructive criticism. When I do find someone, I tend to be so grateful that I consider every scrap of advice zealously. Thus Anna and I's need for a beta reader once we've finished our major revisions :)

  2. You have brought up an important point. It's best to get criticism from somebody qualified to give it. In my baking example, only a somebody who knows how baking works would be qualified to help somebody bake a cake properly. While I could ask any writer or avid reader to offer a critique on my writing style itself, if I were writing a fantasy novel, I would not ask somebody who dislikes fantasy to critique it. This is because someone's dislike for a specific genre may interfere with their ability to give useful feedback.