Saturday, 15 June 2013

Criticism - A Thorny Gift

Though it’s many decades ago, I still remember my Grade 6 & 7 teacher, Mr Steubins. He was an English man in the heart of Africa teaching Zambian nationals and a few white expatriate kids the three R’s and the glories of England and Englishmen in Africa. Despite this Eurocentric outlook, he inspired in me a lasting love for history, a love for English language and introduced me to the musical wonders of Gilbert and Sullivan. Most of all he always had time for a chat at the end of the school day. He also taught me the power of words to hurt and heal, though perhaps inadvertently. I recall the day I sat up straight in my chair, chest swelled with pride, while he read out and then extolled the beauty of a descriptive sentence I had written. Several weeks later, I wanted to sink through the floor, when he ridiculed (without naming me, the hapless author) the rather laboriously polite and tentative letter I had written as part of a class exercise. Looking back, I can see that both evaluations were fair though one I received gladly with both hands, while the other I took like poison.

Growing up I hated even the hint of criticism. It made me crumple and spiral inwards in shame, guilt and protective anger. I still don’t like it very much – especially when it comes from those closest to me or it seems unjustified or it is perhaps too close to a tender point. Criticise me too much and I clam up, withdraw, run away or - just maybe - fight back with a latent Irish temper. We all deal with criticism differently. For me it has always seemed like a scorching fire that withers and burns me away into vapour.

One day, some six or so years later (now back in Australia), I read a small book that opened up a new world of thought for me. Criticism, it said, can be your friend. Later Dr John Savage of LEAD ministries said much the same, “Let your critic be your coach.”  Now, as a writer, I can really appreciate the wisdom of those words. Yes, I learn and improve by practice, by reading the greats and by reading books or articles on the craft and art of writing. And when others wax lyrical over my works (as has happened from time to time), I am uplifted and encouraged. Yet, it has often been the honest and sometimes brutal search light of criticism that has forced me to take important new steps. As a writer, I need to know what I do well and what needs to improve. I value my critique partners, I value their honesty. I also value their kindness and diplomacy.

When first faced with a forceful critique I still often rear up in protective defence. Maybe smiling on the outside, I’m a riot of protest on the inside. “That’s ridiculous. She just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t know what he is talking about. She is too harsh, too rigid.” And then, as the adrenalin begins to cool, I can start to spiral down. “Why maybe I’m kidding myself. I’ll never make it. This is too hard. Maybe I should just give up. Maybe God’s not with me in this.” It’s only after a time of reflection, as once again I give this dream – to write – back to my Lord that I begin to find my balance. Failure cannot vaporise me. Making mistakes is not the same as a permanent burial. I remind myself that my worth is based on God’s love and acceptance, not on my skill and success as a writer – or in any other area of my life (as wife, mother, friend, colleague, professional etc).

As I quieten my spirit I find I can receive this thorny gift. I can scrutinise it and trim it to fit. I don’t have to take everything everyone says on board. Not all criticism is valid. Not all of it is relevant. But there is often a kernel of truth– big or small – beneath the thorns. Suddenly, the idea that there are areas in which my writing can grow and change becomes exciting. I begin to see new possibilities, new options. Out of the dying comes life. (Now where have I heard that before?)

There is an art to giving criticism as well as receiving it. Perhaps criticism is akin to pruning. A judicious pruning shapes the rose bush, strengthening it and encouraging it to flower in abundance. A too vicious and careless pruning might stunt the bush and even kill it. And every gardener knows the bush needs fertilising and watering too. One of my fellow students in my current course suggests using a critique sandwich –with the negative in the middle surrounded by positive and encouraging remarks in front and behind. As a wise person once said:

The right word at the right time
    is like a custom-made piece of jewelry,
And a wise friend’s timely reprimand
    is like a gold ring slipped on your finger.”
Proverbs 25:11-12 The Message

How do you deal with criticism? Are you overly sensitive or thick skinned and dismissive? Or do you receive it like an edgy but faithful friend? How do you give it? Do you shrink from hurting another’s feelings or do you relish hitting hard without mercy? Or maybe you give a word in season, speaking the truth in love (Ephes 4:15). I know that in this, as in so many other areas of my life, I'm still learning.

Jeanette O’Hagan
Jeanette lives in Brisbane, has practiced medicine, taught theology, spoken at various groups & is currently caring for her children, studying writing at Swinburne & writing her Akrad series.


  1. Ah... constructive criticism... Thomas Edison once said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." And each one of those ways was another step to success. Thanks for this thought provoking post, Jeanette!

    1. Thanks Margaret - That's a great quote from Edison.

  2. I've handled it okay so far, the few times I've received constructive criticism. I still get a little nervous at the thought though. I think true constructive criticism is easier to take than the really negative stuff that is not given from a helpful heart - but I guess we don't need to listen to that kind.

    1. Hi Adam. Yes, that's true. It's much easier to handle constructive criticism and when I critique other people's writing I always try to find what's good as well as what might need improving. It is much harder to take when it's totally negative and/or given in anger or malice. However, even then there may be some truth in what is said and we may be able to learn from it.

    2. I also meant to say that I offer my critique as my opinion - after all I might be wrong (it has been known to happen) - rather than the absolute truth.

  3. Thanks for your interesting post Jenny. I think criticism can hurt. But critique is always good. Perhaps the difference is that often criticism's motive is not noble whereas critique's motive is to help constructively. I admit that I struggle with criticism or critique. So a good thing to cultivate - to learn from - to be humbled by too. Thanks Jenny. Something all of us Christians need in order to grow! I was listening to an audio book called 'Spiritual Leadership' by Oswald Saunders. He says that a Christian leader can grow and learn even through malicious criticism. Something good to aspire to!

    1. Hi Anusha. That sounds like an interesting book and an excellent point. Sometimes we do learn through our harshest critics. Of course, sometimes criticism can be totally ungrounded too. But even in that situation it helps me to know that God is the judge between me and my (unjust) critic - and He knows the truth.

      I really appreciate constructive critique of my work now - it helps make it stronger. Personal criticism is a bit harder to handle - but my hunch is that the more we know God loves and accepts us despite our failures, the more we are to able to deal with both warranted and unjust criticism.

      On the other hand, I think we need to be careful we don't crush others by being too harsh (even if what we say is true).

      So perhaps we need to be strong on the inside and gentle on the outside - if that makes sense.

  4. What a helpful post, Jeanette! Especially to those who are just starting out in their writing. Criticism is going to come in all its forms, so it's good to be prepared and ready to recognize the good from the bad.

    I heartily agree with: "There is an art to giving criticism as well as receiving it. Perhaps criticism is akin to pruning. A judicious pruning shapes the rose bush, strengthening it and encouraging it to flower in abundance. A too vicious and careless pruning might stunt the bush."

    I recently received some very very helpful criticism and it improved my M/S immensely.

    1. Thanks Rita. Over this last year, I'm beginning to see constructive criticism of my works in progress as gold. As with you, it has indeed improved my manuscripts.

  5. I reckon I can sometimes sense when a critique sandwich is coming. People have a way of delivering the first sentence in such a way that I'm bracing myself for the 'but'.
    Thanks for the interesting post, Jenny. I really agree that is a skill in delivering constructive criticism in such a way that the recipient feels uplifted instead of disappointed or put down.
    I've had some valuable lessons in both giving and receiving it.
    BTW, that sounds like a great legacy you received from Mr Steubins :)

    1. I chuckled Paula at seeing the image the cringe as the critique sandwich is delivered. Someone once told me (it may have been John Savage) that we generally only hear what is said after the "but" rather than what's said before it. Also, I know I often zero in on the negative comments without fully appreciating the positives. I think the positive comments need to be genuine and maybe in a stand alone sentence or better still paragraphs - not just as a sugar coating to make the negatives slip down easier.

      And you are right! I have had a few great teachers but Mr Steubins has to be my favourite.

  6. Hi Jenny,

    Thank you for such an open and honest post. It shows that although you may struggle with criticism you have a heart of trust to put yourself out there. I am sure this will be a key to your success. Meeting you this was evident. I pray God rewards your perseverance and courage.

    Have you read John Bevere’s book The Bait Of Satin? I would highly recommend it.


  7. Jenny, great post. Criticism is something we all need to learn to del with. But when critiquing work I always try and give the positives to begin with and at the end, like you said as a sandwich.