Cats and kittens, one thing I’d like to discuss is how to give a meaningful critique. In this wide, weird, wonderful internet of ours, the bar to making creative works for an audience is lower than ever, and the number of editors hasn’t yet met the demand, so until we each get that book deal and a personal editor, we have to rely on each other to give constructive feedback.
Who are you to be lecturing us?
I’m a practicing attorney, which means that in law school and since, I’ve been critiqued to shreds and reconstructed to not embarrass my professors, partners, and clients 1 which ought to qualify me by itself. However, I’ve also been an art teacher and a proposal writer for a staffing agency, so I have extensive experience giving and receiving critiques on a professional level. I have received unhelpful and helpful critiques both, and I know what works for me. 2
Okay, okay. Why are you telling us how to give critique? I can already tell when something is bad.
Picture this: you ask someone to read a manuscript you wrote, or look at a painting you spent hours on, and you’ve put a lot of time, thought, and energy in. They tell you it sucks. …First, ouch. Second, what about it sucks? Is there anything that can be improved for next time?
You as the critic owe the creator and the work a duty to give thoughtful, useful critique. It doesn’t always have to be “rip me to shreds” criticism, but you owe them the chance to improve based on your insight.
Heavy-handed. Okay, how do I make sure my critique is useful?
Glad you asked. There are five questions to consider when critiquing a piece:
- Who is this for?
- What are the audience’s expectations?
- What is the creator going for?
- What doesn’t work and why?
- What works and why?
Well, the first three questions give you context you need before your critique can be meaningful. Once you know the audience, their expectations, and whether the creator intends to subvert, comment upon, confound, or simply fulfill the intended audience’s expectations, then you have your metrics for whether or not the work is successful.
A concrete example: I didn’t like Mad Max: Fury Road, but I thought it was a successful work. 3 It was a technically gorgeous movie that effectively invoked and defied its genre expectations to tell a story about gender roles. I wasn’t the target audience, though, so the fact that it didn’t grab me doesn’t mean it wasn’t good. A critique saying it failed as a movie because it didn’t appeal to me specifically when it wasn’t meant to isn’t a helpful critique.
A different example: If you’re submitting a contract proposal to a government agency, you’d better damn well keep audience expectations in mind—a choice not to meet them isn’t an artistic choice, it’s simply a failure, because you will lose the contract bid, possibly your security clearance, and probably your job. A critique pointing this out is useful.
What doesn’t work and why?
I see your eyes light up, you hyenas. This is what you thought of first when you were asked to critique someone’s work.
The key here is to keep your critique helpful. Absent a professional reason otherwise, how in-depth you go should be defined by the creator, and if they didn’t tell you, ask. If you’re nitpicking and they needed to know about the big picture, you’re not helping.
Professionals obviously need more in-depth critiques, because incomes and livelihoods depend on a work being good. This is where things can get heated, but it should never get savage or personal. If a critique is or can be mistaken for an attack on the creator instead of a comment on the work, it’s not helpful—not only does it not help improve the work, it damages the relationship with the creator. For professionals, this can be deadly; for hobbyists, this can lose friends.
The best thing to do is keep the critique about the work. This is why I phrased this section as “What doesn’t work and why?” It keeps my commentary solely to the work, and includes the presumption that the problem can be fixed. Just focus on the work and what choices are confusing or counterproductive to the creator’s intent.
What works and why? Wait, I thought I just had to tell them what sucked!
You owe the creator and the work an honest critique, and that means recognizing when things work, too. This not only makes swallowing critique easier for the creator—and therefore easier for you!—it gives the creator the objective outside perspective they can’t have. Creators tend to be harsh self-critics, and often have been working with a piece for so long they take what works for granted, minimize it, or miss it entirely. Your honest critique could give them a new focus and direction as they re-center a piece around what works.
If you keep these in mind and structure your critiques accordingly, you’ll be a useful and constructive resource for your fellow creators. They’ll probably ask you for more critiques! And return the favor, of course. This is how artists improve—you scratch their back, they’ll scratch yours.
For example, I got a good critique on this post by Sparf, who coincidentally has a podcast on this very subject, for you cats interested in further on the topic. Sparf is an author, editor, and podcaster at Independent Claws, in addition to being vice president of Fur the More. Check out his podcast on critique at Independent Claws.
Speaking of back scratching, I have a flea bath with my name on it, so until next time, sit. Stay. Speak. Good dog.
- In theory, anyway.
- Unhelpful: Picture twelve hours of me standing stonefaced with Gunnery Sergeant Hartman yelling obscenities at me inches from my snoot, and that’ll be about right.
- Comments section below, or tweet me @buddygoodboyesq. I do employ the banhammer and block button, so keep critiques meaningful.