“Don’t be a critic,” is a common expression, but one that writers should probably avoid. Not only should we welcome critics, but we should be critics as often as possible. Good criticism exercises a necessary writerly muscle.
I came to this realization as I was explaining the workshop process to my new group of undergrads. In addition to writing their own plays, they are required to write a critique of each play their peers present. As we went over the elements of a good critique (objective, positive, constructive, questioning, respectful), it dawned on me that this practice was something that often falls to one side after we finish school.
It’s not that it’s completely lost; we internalize the process. All that analysis of each others’ work helps us become better writers because we learn to use the same techniques on our own pieces. But we need to continue to exercise that analytical portion of our brain to keep it in shape. for the sake of our own writing, if nothing else.
Even if you don’t share or publish your critiques, I think writers should keep a notebook (physical or electronic) for the sake of keeping in practice. Of course, if you’re willing to make them public, there’s always Amazon, GoodReads, blogs, etc. for getting your opinion out there, too. The danger there is writing just for the sake of ego, of making your opinion heard. The real value in sharpening the knife is to turn it on your own work.
For me, one of the big thrills of the MFA process was discovering people who “get” your work. Whose critiques you take in hand and re-read several times so that you can address the issues they’ve pointed out. All most all of my workshop critiques have said something valuable, but I’ve also found that there are a few people who are on my wavelength. It’s not that they necessarily like my work more than anyone else, but their way of thinking connects with mine in some deeper way, and they see the issues with remarkable clarity. And I learn not just what’s wrong with my work, but — if I’m lucky, how to see in the way that they do. And that makes me both a better writer, and more helpful to the writers I critique.
Here’s a little cartoon criticism, via the New Yorker and Tom Gauld.