A Word on Criticism and Courage


You have only to spend a short amount of time with writers, perhaps in writers’ groups or personally, to realise that most of them are terrified of criticism. Sometimes, they are so full of fear that they haven’t even admitted to themselves that they are writers, and the thoughts that they scribble down in their own time are not considered to be potential works of fiction for others to read, but a kind of therapy, inwardly directed, never to be viewed by another.

It’s a huge area for discussion, and very important. And there are answers that will help.

But it might help to start with a small clarification of terms. The word ‘criticism’ comes from Latin criticus, from Greek kritikos, from kritēs ‘a judge’, from krinein ‘judge, decide’. Right from its roots, then, it possesses a different vector than the writer, in the sense that a writer writes in order to be free, to step away from judgement or restriction, to indulge and to weave and to create. The idea of ‘deciding’ or ‘judging’ only appears when one has to introduce a context. If one wants to be read, one has to go through some kind of process to match one’s writing with some sort of external criteria. There are two broad sets of these criteria: the first is to do with mechanics - are the words spelled correctly? Are they put together in a comprehensible order, with recognisable punctuation? In other words, will a reader be able to understand what is written on a technical level? This is where ‘criticism’ is initially encountered: judgement, decision, an outside person telling the writer whether or not he or she has accurately used the language. This level can be bad enough: I’ve seen people ripped to pieces in some writers’ groups for a minuscule misuse of a dash or a slightly inaccurate interpretation of a word. I’ve seen pages and pages of social media feed all about the placement of commas. And much of this, unfortunately, was underlaid by someone’s ego, some frustrated or irascible ‘expert’ demonstrating a supposed superiority over others by crushing the tiniest error underfoot.

In a sense, though, criticism of the mechanics of one’s writing is not that difficult to take. It can be introverting, and I have seen many wr