Criticism or Critique?

Monday, March 4, 2013

These two words, criticism and critique, share a dictionary definition but often create opposite emotions. Many people view criticism negatively but critique positively.

Both should be positive, even when they are negative.

I belong to several groups that exist to encourage and, yes, to criticize. To criticize the material, that is, not the person.

The Highland Writers' Group is an in-person critique group that meets weekly to critique members' works in progress, and Calumet Toastmasters is a Toastmasters International club that meets semi-monthly to listen to and evaluate members' speeches. I also have an on-line critique partner who is most helpful of all. The picture shows me with Celeste when we met for lunch during my vacation last summer.

There are two things I've learned (among many, of course). First, if I want to improve my craft, I can't be sensitive. Second, if I want to improve my craft, I must be sensitive. The definition to avoid is "quick to take offense; touchy." The one to embrace is "responsive to external conditions or stimulation." (These two definitions of "sensitive" come from the fourth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.)

Several years ago, I was writing an overtly Christian novel and sharing it with the Highland Writers' Group for critique. I found myself constantly irritated by the criticism from one member. He appeared to be antagonistic to Christianity, and most of his comments showed that he misunderstood what I was trying to say in this paragraph or that one. My immediate reaction (in my head, not my mouth, fortunately), was "You aren't my audience. Christians will know what I mean."

Then I went home and thought about it. Yes, he wasn't my intended audience, and maybe a Christian audience would understand what I wrote. But maybe it wouldn't. Equally important, what if a non-Christian picked up the book and read it? Better to reword a few paragraphs than to risk being misunderstood.

With minor variations, this experience has been a theme in the critique experiences I have found most helpful. If I quickly take offense and discount the criticisms, I don't learn anything. But if I think about what was said and respond offensively rather than defensively, my writing is the better for it. Yes, I still reject some of the suggestions I receive, but not until I have considered them carefully.

Because even negative criticism can be a positive experience.

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