Editor’s note: this post was first published in 2010.
A blogging friend recently posted about an issue that a lot of us writers can relate to. The kind of person she writes about is a person we’ve all had to deal with: The Bad Critic. I’ve been meaning to write about this issue a while back, and now I think it’s finally time to talk about the notorious, the ugly, the vicious, the downright EVIL, Bad Critic.
Notice I did not say that The Critic was evil. There are really good critics, and, in fact, writers NEED good critics. These critics provide the right combination of constructive criticism and positive feedback we need to keep going–and also to keep improving.
In fact, what I realized was that The Critic is actually very much a creator. I know, my fellow writers are snickering at me for trying to compare critics to artists, but stay with me here.
Many critics have the power to make or break a career, even today. They are especially important with new and upcoming talent. It’s an incredible responsibility, and a very delicate one. All critics should know (if they are reading this) that their job is a very important one. Just like a writer, your job takes time, takes effort, takes careful consideration. Your job, like ours, is in the details, in the care, in the love of art in general. You have, like us, the general good of humanity in mind, at least you should. Because you can potentially be the gateway in which a new emerging artist can find his footing and one day become incredibly influential in their field. But it also may happen that this new artist begins and ends with you.
We writers know our responsibilities to our stories and to our work: we are the caretakers of our art, and it is up to us to keep this art safe. Critics, on the other hand, have writers as their responsibility. As a critic, it’s your job to take care of us, to keep us safe, to nurture us, to keep us going–and if we aren’t performing at our best, push us to do better with detailed and level-headed criticism. We cannot grow from personal attacks and put downs. It’s just a fact. So if you’re a critic, and aren’t sure the line between BAD and GOOD, let me tell you.
Here is what makes a Bad Critic:
Bad critics don’t do their homework
By this I mean, they don’t actual read what they are critiquing. They might skim, or get the general idea. They might even “read” ever sentence–but they haven’t really READ it. They haven’t sat down and analyzed and tried to imagine what the writer was trying to get at. They weren’t trying to get the big picture. They weren’t looking into the author’s background, or what brought that person to write it. They didn’t have the author’s age in mind, or at what level they are writing at (teacher’s know you have to teach each student at their own strengths and weaknesses, and not compared to another student’s level of skill.) A critic’s homework is important, and if they don’t do their homework, their comments won’t help anyone.
Bad critics make vague, general comments
“I didn’t like it.” “It was boring.” “It’s stupid.” “It’s too long.” “It sucks.” “I hate it.” “I don’t know, it just wasn’t my thing.” That is not criticism. It doesn’t help. It makes us feel bad, and worse, it makes us feel like our work isn’t even worth any detailed analysis or critique. If all you have is vague general comments, then you need to go back and do your homework.
Bad critics skip on positive feedback
So you can’t give detailed, constructive comments, ok. But are you telling me you like NOTHING about it? There is always something good about a piece, and if it is really bad then you are always allowed to say: “I’d like to see it again after you revise it one more time.” Otherwise, you have to say something good. Why? It goes back to your responsibility as a creator. You are responsible for nurturing us. You need to give us encouragement to keep going because we really need it. It’s hard out here for a pimp–I mean–an artist and some positive feedback and word of an encouragement could be a life vest on a rocky ocean. Don’t leave positive feedback out!
Bad critics confuse your work with theirs
“I don’t agree with this.” “This just never would happen.” “I like it when this kind of thing happens.” “You should change this, because I know better than you, and it is just not how you say it is.” Oh really? Well that is why I am writing it. Because I believe that IT IS how I say IT IS. This is the way I SEE things and that’s why it’s my novel, not yours. If you have a view you would like to express, then write your own novel–don’t hijack mine through your criticism. You’re looking for how my story needs improvement, not how you can make my story more like yours.
Bad critics make it personal
This is the absolute worse. This is going too far Mr. Bad Critic! You have gone past the realm of creator and now you have become The Destroyer. You are out to kill artists when you start making your critiques personal. “He/she is just no good.” “She’ll never make it anywhere.” “He never received the proper education that’s why.” “Your voice is not going to fit the mainstream.” “You are lazy.” “You’re not funny, witty, original…” “YOU ARE JUST NOT, NOT, NOT, NOT, THIS, THAT, THIS.” “YOU are what’s wrong with this work, PITY that YOU can’t change who YOU are.” At this point critic you have gone from human to monster. This kind of critique will only serve to obliterate an artist, not nurture them.
Bad critics make threats
Ok. Now you’re just scary. Just because you don’t like something someone wrote doesn’t mean that now you can suggest physical violence against said person. So, if the work is bad, then the best thing to do is just say nothing. Stop reading it. Read something else. Those personal attacks have now become too real for you, and now you think that the person on the other end of the work poses some real physical threat to you. Even if it’s some sardonic joke, it is still very troubling and upsetting that you would joke about making a threat. At this point, Mr. Bad Critic, you need some serious help. Please, seek it, because the person you’re jokingly proposing violence against is someone you don’t even know. And that just makes you borderline crazy.