Now my real research is in literary studies, where what I do is called ‘literary criticism’. In my field ‘critique’ and ‘critical thinking’ are the highest forms of rigour–but what those words mean in my field is different from how they are often used in general conversation.
If I’m talking to someone in everyday conversation, and they said ‘I’ve got some criticisms of you’, I expect them to be pretty scathing about lost of things that are wrong with me. When I sit down to read literary criticism, on the other hand, I expect to hear a lot about what is good with the work.
At the same time, ‘is it any good?’ is often the least interesting or important part of literary criticism. Within literary criticism I sit within cultural studies/cultural history, so some of my favourite criticism starts with ‘this isn’t great art, but it’s interesting’; or ‘who cares if it’s good or not, lots of people love it (or hate it), let’s look at why’; or ‘this art is good, but it’s also extremely problematic, let’s unpack that’. So critical questions can be more about how your work sits within wider contexts than just ‘how can this work be better?’
With this in mind, I am interested in turning people who are ‘their own worst critic’ into being their own ‘best critic’–not by turning your ‘inner critic’ into an ‘inner cheerleader’, but by training your ‘inner critic’ to be good at their job!
So what is a good critic?
A good critic sees issues. They can identify where writing is strong or weak, where things are coherent and internally logical, and where things don’t fully make sense. A good critic not only identifies such issues, but has a strong sense of how to make the writing better. This means that the way they identify issues in your writing helps you to make productive changes.
This is because a good critic evaluates your work compared to your peers and a model of ‘good writing’. A good critic is widely read in the genre you are working in, and has a deep understanding of what your sort of writing typically looks like, along with a historically informed understanding of what is ‘traditional’ and what is ‘innovative’ in your field. A good critic can therefore evaluate where you could learn from others, and where you stand out compared to your peers.
Such a reader will also see connections between your work and others’, perhaps seeing influences that are not obvious, or places where your writing is in conversation with other wider debates. That helps you to read effectively across a range of sources, and to improve your citations.
What’s more, a good critic recognises development across an oeuvre (or body of work). A good critic is interested not only on what you are doing well or not so well right now, but can see how far you have developed since your early days as a writer. They can see what you are doing in the current work that is new, exciting or more mature. They may identify some strengths in your earlier writing that has been lost in the current work, that you might want to recapture. They can also see the consistent threads through your whole body of work, recurrent themes, approaches, or a sustained writerly voice.
A good critic sees depths others may have missed, and uncovers latent meanings. A good critic reads your work looking for deep understanding, but also ambiguities and tensions in your writing. Sometimes these deeper meanings are something you want to be present in your writing, and it’s great that other readers perceive and appreciate them. Sometimes those further meanings are unintentional and they muddy the purpose of your writing–so having a reader who catches those meanings early gives you a chance to rewrite to be more straightforward.
The job of a critic goes beyond merely responding to your writing, however. Literary criticism produces new works that extend your ideas, applies them in new contexts or explains their ongoing relevance. A good critic will help you to see where your research can go next, how it can be developed into future writing projects, future collaborations, or be applied in future contexts.
Finally, a good critic introduces your work to new readers in a way that excites them to pick up your work and find the deeper meanings and exciting connections for themselves. A good critic helps your writing heroes to find your work, and find it useful. Other readers that discover you are probably scholars you want to be reading in turn, so this aspect of a critic’s job will help you find new heroes too.
So there you have it. Just imaging how awesome it would be to have a good inner critic, helping you write well, understanding your writing process, and getting your writing into the hands of readers who want to read it. I hope this post has encouraged you to give your ‘inner critic’ some professional development so they become good at their job!