The Art of Criticism: What Would Hester Heckles Do??

Every year around December 15th, my parents would commission me to write a family Christmas letter.  As an oldest child, naturally I lapped up this responsibility and found Xtreme pleasure in being able to sardonically expose my family via one 8.5X11 sheet of paper.  Inevitably, the ‘rents would read my work and deem the first draft much too “sarcastic” or “mean”… and annoyed I would storm off and hiss– “fine, then write it yourselves!” But… of course, being the controlish-freakish o.c. I was, I couldn’t really let it go.  So draft after draft my precious letter would morph into yet another mundane (though slightly more sassy) Christmas letter.

Ironically, today I yearn for the open critique my parents offered–just a little feedback–even if negative. Though critique burns at the start,  like any great wine the finish is well worth it. And my writing or thinking or something else I do usually improves or is at least challenged.

But because the “like” button on facebook has all but destroyed our ability to form opinions into words, I’ve decided (in oldest-child-bossy-pants-fashion) to offer some instruction on HOW to criticize/critique well.  (Let’s be clear on this, even if you don’t care about critiquing writing, you may have other areas of interest that could use some genteel nudging toward betterment).

Take a look at the below critique written to Zach, author of Funwater Awesome 3. (Zach included this in his zine BTW, so I think that says something about how good it was)

Zach:
Most people are fine with the pointless feel-good of your zine, but I, for one, want more than what’s in the flabby folds of your head. There is nothing practical in your zine! Nothing of quantifiable SUBSTANCE! Where are the true Tumwater tales, the lessons, the stories of some use to people of today? Good minds want to know. 
– Hester Heckles

Things to note:
1. There is no beating around the bush. No Minnesota nice.
2. And yet.. there is humor. “Flabby folds.” C’mon. You laughed.
3. He asks for specifics. He wants tales, lessons, and something a little more useful.

An easy/snarky way to deter unwanted parenting advice, I suppose
An easy/snarky way to deter unwanted parenting advice, I suppose

Take-aways:
I think we all stink at criticism/critiquing a little because, for the most part, it’s been done wrong to us. So we either 1. repeat the mistake, criticizing poorly (which leads to defensiveness or shame on the part of the other) or 2. avoid it all together (which leads to annoyance or dissatisfaction or worse on our part). But look at Hester Heckels– he did it. And so can we. We can be straight-forward, yet good-natured in our requests. We can help people and things grow without coming across like a bad-mannered, discontent sass-hole. It’s possible.

Your thoughts, critiques??

p.s. now next time I include a snapshot of some of my zine writing, you are well equipped to (kindly) lambast me.

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