Being a Better Writer: Being Your Own Worst Critic

Hello readers! First of all, I must apologize for how late this post is. Long story short, after a few days of not sleeping well (some nights barely at all) thanks to my cracked ribs, last night I achieved comfort (mostly) with a large body pillow and a giant bean bag. The result was that I slept for quite a long time. Until about 2:30 PM to be exact. So my apologies, first of all, for this post coming so late in the day.

That said, let’s dive right in so you’re kept from it as little as possible! Let’s talk about the art of being your own worst critic.

This is something that comes up a lot in writing circles. In fact, if you hang out in a writing group you’ve probably heard it a few times. Maybe more than that. You’ll hear it in writing classes as well, and even occasionally from random people passing off “cliche writing advice” (which we did a whole summer feature on last year). But here’s something interesting about this bit of advice: it’s hardly ever expounded upon.

Which can leave a lot of young writers a little perplexed, because, well, let’s face it, advice like “be your own worst critic” is a little vague. Worse, if they happen to know of a bad critic and take the saying at face value, becoming even worse, well … Let’s just say this sends them down a very self-destructive path. In an age where anyone can be a “critic” with the only goal of ripping someone’s hard work to shreds simply because they can, telling someone to be a worse critic than that can end a young writer’s journey before it’s even started.

Which is a shame, because properly explained, being your own worst critic is a pretty good idea, one that every writer should internalize and apply. It’s just that it’s been … warped is a good term for it … by the modern definition of “critic” most people subscribe to.

So then, with today’s post, let’s look at this through some fresh eyes. First, let us discuss what a critic, especially in terms of this context is not, despite the changing of the popular meaning, and root out any mistaken concepts that stem from that misconception, as well as the negative consequence of such.

Once we’ve established what a critic is not, then we’ll discuss instead what “being your own worst critic” really entails, and what that means for writers who want to apply it to their writing. You ready? Then let’s get this underway!

So, what is a critic not? Again, I bring this up because the modern definition of critic has become somewhat shifted from the origins of the advice to be your own worst. Driven by modern media and the internet, the modern “critic” has evolved into a savage and often ruthlessly cruel art dedicated to tearing one and their work down. As stated by the prominent antagonist Ego in Ratatouille, “We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.”

He’s not wrong. The thrill of seeing someone savage something, deserved or not, drives a lot of modern criticism. Sands, there are whole YouTube channels dedicated to tearing people’s creations apart for the spiteful enjoyment of the audience, even if said creation didn’t at all deserve the treatment.

But audiences in it for the spite don’t care. In fact, the bigger and grander the target the better. A case could be made that this stems from envy, and personally, I think that would seem to be the cause, as in many cases modern criticism will go out of its way to criticize, outright ignoring that their own criticism is false or in bad faith in order to provide “entertainment” for their audience (and in fact, “it’s just entertainment, bro” is a common defense by those taking part in the creation of such).

If we acknowledge this behavior, however … What purpose does it serve the writer? What would be gained by looking at your own work and ignoring the internal logic in order to mock it or tear it down as these critics do? Who is going to be served by such? After all, if you’re the critic of your own in-progress work, what other audience would derive “entertainment” from you savaging your own creation without respect to logic and setting?

This modern “critic” then, this abrasive and outright destructive figure, is not the kind of critic any writer should be attempting to emulate when being their own “worst critic.” This modern critic is never happy with anything produced by anyone, and in fact their only real goal or victory seems to be that the creator stop creating.

So again, I ask you, what sort of use is it to a young writer to follow, emulate, and adopt the mindset of a “critic” who’s only goal is to bully those that create into ceasing creation of their works? To tear them down with caustic comments and depreciating accusations—even illogical ones—until they give up altogether? To focus so firmly on anything that might be seen as a negative, even if it isn’t, that there’s nothing remotely worthy of praise?

What good would that do anyone?

The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t do anyone any good. Worse, I’ve seen young authors fall into this trap. They adopt the mentality of this kind of “critic” and gradually destroy themselves as well as any confidence in their own writing and creative ability. In the end they “win” as those critics do: By giving up and stopping altogether. Because it will never be ‘perfect” and there’s always a flaw about it they can see.

This—and I bold this for clarity—is not the type of critic any of us should attempt to be. Nor is it what the original saying is referring to when it instructs us to be our own worst critic (though in a roundabout way, this does kind of fit the worst aspect).

If this is the trap you have fallen into with “be your own worst critic” back out now. This mindset won’t help you, but only rip you down. Instead, focus on being a real critic of your work, and using that to propel yourself forward to greater and better things.

Okay then, some of you are likely thinking right now. If that modern definition of critic isn’t helpful, then surely there’s an older definition for us to pull from that makes this advice a bit more useful?

Well, you’re right. And that kind of critic is what the saying refers to. It’s an older definition now, but critic used to be someone who carefully judged the merits of a work. Usually professionally. And the goal? It wasn’t to tear everything down. Rather it was to help the creator improve by knowing where to focus their efforts next.

For example, while many modern film “critics” on YouTube only exist to mock and deride a creation despite its good elements, classical film critics (some of whom still exist) noted the good with the bad, and often came from an angle of “here’s what this creator can, in my opinion, improve.”

To give us a positive example, there’s a YouTube film critic called SaberSpark, who despite letting his audience pick the animated films he reviews (which means he is given some truly awful low-budget films to review) always works to find positive things to say about the films he’s given.

Oh, he does mention the negative things as well. But he’s not above going “But look at this, they did this really well.” He’s critical … but in the sense that he applies his lens of quality equally across each creation, noting things that are done well as well as done poorly, and even often suggesting ways the creators could remedy the weak areas. Because even while he’s reviewing really low-budget items, SaberSpark loves animation and wants to see these creators succeed!

And honestly? When we as writers are told to be our own worst critics, that’s the kind of critic we’re supposed to be emulating. Yes, we need to be aware of our faults, our real faults (not just imagined exaggerations). We need to be aware of them so that we can improve.

But we also need to be aware of what we do well, and combine those things with a drive to see ourselves succeed.

“But wait,” some of you are saying. “What about the ‘worst’ bit of the criticism? Shouldn’t you be a bit harsher?”

Well, in asking that  you’re right … and you’re wrong. See, ‘worst’ isn’t in the term most are thinking of, in the sense that they need to be the most brutal and demanding. Rather, that you as a critic should be the most difficult to please. Not impossibly so, but that you should demand more of yourself than your critics.

Let me offer an example from my own work. I’ve steadily seen the ratings of my books rise over the years. My first book, One Drink, isn’t actually a great showing compared to the rest of my works, and I myself give it 3 stars. Dead Silver shows improvement, but still isn’t perfect. My later works? They’re all sitting quite high in review scores, the critical reception being that they’re incredible Sci-Fi (or fantasy) tales well worth everyone’s time.

However, that does not mean that I myself have stopped being critical of my own works, and this is what is meant by “worst critic.” See, if you get good enough, sometimes even your most ardent critics will stop being critical because, well, they’re fans. Praise and advice may be simply replaced by advice. And when that happens, if you aren’t willing to be the critic that’s hardest to please, you’ll hit a plateau.

In other words, being your own worst critic means that you never stop looking for ways to improve your work, even when others do. You’re always looking back over what you write and asking yourself “But where can I do better next time?” Always looking for the small, critical improvements to take to the next project.

Now, there’s something else I want to mention about this process that’s very important, especially for a new/young writer. Here’s the thing about critics: They critique a finished product. So should you.

Yes, I once more put that in bold because it’s important. Do not become a critic of a partially-finished work. Be critical of the whole, not the part. Finish the project first.

I point this out because I have seen, time and time again, young and amateur writers remind one another that they should be their own worst critics, therefore they should stop in the middle of this chapter and go fix this other thing they just now noticed at the start of the story and—

No. Just no. That is one of the starting steps down the path of the death spiral. Critics look at a work that is finished. Edited. Cleaned. Finished. Let your inner critic be the same, then apply those lessons to the next project you work on. Find the strengths and weaknesses, then polish them in the next project. When that project is complete, become your own worst critic once more.

One last thing, then we’ll recap. Sometimes I have seen “wannabe critics,” the modern kind, deride writers and other creators using the logic of “be your own worst critic” by criticizing the creator for their lack of personal criticism. They’ll tell a creator that they must be “doing it wrong” because they as a “critic” are being more “critical” than the creator, and therefore one more thing the creator needs to berate them for.

This is a deflecting accusation, designed to justify the “critic’s” own abrasive behavior. Ignore them. A real critic, the kind each of us should aspire to be at our worst, is still one that encourages us to work forward and build to something newer and better. The folks that attempt to justify themselves and their behavior with this statement? They are skag-lickers. You can ignore them and their “advice” safely.

So, let’s recap! The idea of “Being your own worst critic” predates the modern idea of what a “critic” is, and is not the caustic individual out to tear creators down. Rather, the saying refers to the older style of critic, those who acknowledge the good and the bad, as well as frame that bad as where authors can grow and improve. That critic is the one we need to nurture in ourselves.

However, we need to remember that the critic judges finished products, not works in progress. We need to hold that inner critic back until the work is done, then apply their criticism to our next project. The critic doesn’t stop content from coming. Rather, they encourage it.

So, look at your own finished projects. Analyze them. See what worked, and what didn’t. Then put that knowledge into practice on your next project.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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