Hello Interwebs! “Everyone’s a critic”, so the saying goes. In my experience, this is true. Unfortunately, it’s also my experience that most people don’t know how to give proper criticism. From unhelpful comments at best, to soul-destroying harshness at worst, good critiques are hard to find. Today I offer some of my go-to rules for criticism to help you better comment on writing, performance, art, or anything else on which you have an opinion.
The Role of the Critic
Many artists/ creative types only show off their work to gain approval from you or others, but this mentality is not fair to you or to the artist. The desire to protect the feelings of others is noble (and will be discussed further) but your thoughts and feelings matter too. By allowing yourself to have an honest opinion and approach art with a critical eye, you’re engaging deeper with the work and making a serious attempt to understand it, for better or worse. And, whether the art is masterful or abysmal, honest engagement reflects the power of artistic expression (a powerful work will create powerful thoughts and emotions whereas weak work will inspire little of anything). Basically, the more you interact with art, the more you hopefully get out of it; and if you take issue with what you get out of it, sharing those issues is equally important as celebrating the things you liked.
Frankly, I don’t believe any artist ever grows or improves in their craft if they are only praised. As Fletcher from the movie Whiplash once said: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.” Now, he’s technically the movie’s antagonist, but I always felt he had a point. Criticism isn’t always easy to take (or give) but a healthy artist must learn to accept both praise and constructive notes in stride.
I’ve known people who have little talent/ prowess at something but think they’re amazing. Those people are sad to watch. Don’t be one of them, and don’t let your friends and family become them (or strangers, if you dabble in more professional criticism). The role of the critic is to assist the creative process through constructive opinion and (as a bonus) temper the artist’s ego.
SIDE NOTE: I’m talking more about criticisms for works not yet released. Once the work is public, they are subject to the opinions of reviewers, whose job is slightly different. Reviewers use their opinions to inform the public what they believe worth seeing, whereas the criticisms I’m covering are about helping an artist do their best possible work.
Rule 1: Be Specific
Here’s a pet-peeve of mine: I write something, show it to a friend or family member, ask them what they thought and they say, “it’s good”… Don’t get me wrong– I love positive feedback, but such blanket statements are unhelpful to me. The goal of criticism should be to express WHY something is good or bad, and often how it can be better.
SIDE NOTE: To all the egotists out there– I’m sorry to break this news to you, but every creation can ALWAYS be better.
Instead of simply saying my writing is “good”, I’d much rather hear something like: “Your main character is charming and endearing, and I found his story relatable; however, I hated him in scene 10. He might have been frustrated with his lover but there was no nuance or subtext. The man was just spewing his thoughts without any kind of filter and it felt unnatural in this context.”
Maybe this example is the one less-than-perfect thing the critic noticed in my script. But I’d sooner hear why my critic didn’t like the thing than let the issue slide. Sure, maybe they thought everything else was good, but even one note can help my writing improve.
Rule 2: Don’t Be a Jerk
Having an opinion is acceptable; being rude/ insensitive is not. Insulting people’s hard work is not cool. It doesn’t matter how bad the project is or how well you know somebody. Not to imply you’d try and be insulting but artists can be a sensitive bunch. Or maybe you’re just being a jerk and you hit a nerve… Who knows? If you’re inclined to the later problem, here’s an important tip: the trick to good critique is finding ways to share your thoughts without hurting anyone’s feelings or making people feel like failures. Scathing critique sounds like it would be a productive thing (especially based on my last rule) but there’s a right and wrong way to go about it.
Speaking from personal experience: I was a terrible critic as a teenager! My friends still call me “Judgmental Joe” sometimes… I’ve got two stories in particular which are a great example of how not to criticize people.
Story 1) Back in high school, I had a close friend who would turn to me for advice on essays. She and I respected each other’s opinions and helped each other turn out solid work. There was one time, however, where my criticisms went a little far. I nitpicked one of her essays to an extreme degree (and I believe I even used red pen to do so). If I recall, there was one page I just drew a big X over…
Now, most of my notes were constructive points on issues that were mostly legitimate. However, I feel badly to this day about the way I drew attention to the problems. Covering my friend’s pages in red pen (underlines, circles, X’s, etc) just made her work look terrible, even if it wasn’t. My notes weren’t all severe but making a point of HOW many notes I had was harsh. My criticisms resulted in this girl re-writing her entire essay (pretty well from scratch I think). I’m glad she used my points to improve her work, but I could also tell she felt self-conscious and maybe even a tad offended over my critiques.
So what should I have done instead? Considering it was an argumentative essay, I should have focused on my friend’s structure and arguments, saving criticisms on word-choice or phrasing for another draft.
Moral of this story: Criticism is helpful but TOO much criticism at once can be hurtful/ detrimental. The best projects require multiple drafts/ pass-overs to get right. Give your most important points for the first iteration and provide more nitpicky opinions later, once the project is closer to completion.
Story 2) Thought Plane Media’s very own Justin Church once started work on a novel. What happened to that novel, you might wonder? Heck if I know. He hasn’t shown me any more of it since this story took place… I’ll take the blame for that.
What happened? Well, Justin once brought me some excerpts of his novel and asked my opinion. I took a quick glance over the text and immediately made a mental note that the dialogue sounded wooden. Instead of sharing this opinion upfront, however, I came up with an idea: make Justin read the dialogue aloud so he could hear it for himself. In principle, this was a solid technique (one which I use all the time to workshop my writing); in practice, it was demeaning and not a very kind thing to do. He seemed terribly embarrassed after the fact…
Justin is a stubborn personality, and at the time I wasn’t sure he would listen to my concerns, so I decided it was easier to make him realize the work’s flaws. In hindsight, I should have just been direct and kindly shared my opinion. If he didn’t believe me, perhaps then reading the samples aloud would have been more appropriate. In any case, Justin was so traumatized by the experience, it took years before he’d show me something else again (independent of TPM anyway).
Moral of this story: Criticism isn’t a game. Be direct. Don’t circle around the problem and don’t try to solve it indirectly.
SIDE NOTE: I still feel bad about this. In case I’ve never apologized, I’m sorry Justin…
Another note: be careful about the language you use. You never want to sound condescending. Some words to stay away from include “obviously, actually, dumb, nonsense,” etc. Basically, you want to address issues without making people feel terrible about their efforts. The point is to build artists up, not to tear them down. Remember that it’s easier to critique than to create. It’s a privilege to have your opinion consulted, so you ought to use that privilege wisely.
Rule 3: Let People Write in Their Own Voice
This one’s more for writing critics but the point still applies…
Believe it or not, many critics (whether they have any background in creative work or not) critique people based on how they would produce a project instead of being objective. I used to be awful for this myself, but I’d like to think I’ve improved. I’ll give you some examples of what I mean:
Somebody might write: “Hi! How are you today?”
A critic (you?) might try and change this sentence to: “Hi! How are you this evening?”
Writer: “The cheerful puppy dashed along the grass, leaped high and caught its frisbee!”
Critic: “Bounding into the air after an enthusiastic sprint, the cheerful puppy caught its frisbee!”
While all sentences are technically correct and don’t change anything fundamental in the “story”, it’s ridiculously common for people to alter words and phrases for no reason. Every creator has their own unique “voice” with which they express themselves (whether through words, art, dance, design, etc). When criticizing work, it is common for people to desire changes which conform to their personal creative voice. But please try not to do this. Just because it’s not the way YOU would write it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Check grammar, check structure and flow; check for consistency in information; ask valid questions; but DON’T re-write/ rework anything. If you have a legitimate concern with the way something is phrased, leave a note next to it. For example:
Writer says: “I hate your guts. You really really suck.”
Critic (should say): “I like the raw emotion here, but one of those sentences is redundant.”
Your job is to tell the creator what doesn’t work about their project and explain why. Don’t tell them HOW to fix the problem unless they specifically ask for suggestions.
Rule 4: Don’t Force Your Opinions
Creators of any kind are stubborn and headstrong. They’re often people who insist upon their vision, even if it’s terrible. You might have the best critiques in the world but that doesn’t mean they’ll be used, or even considered. That said– you can’t force people to apply your critiques. The only thing worse than a jerk of a critic is a pushy one. Even if you’re well intentioned, aggressively insisting someone else adapts to your opinions never goes well in any social or business circumstance…
Rule 5: Know How to Express Yourself
All that said, don’t be afraid to argue your opinion with creators a little bit. You ultimately can’t make them do anything, but –as resistant as creators can be– many people will at least listen if you can explain your points well enough. Speak in kind tones, stroke the creator’s ego a bit (within reason) and describe to the best of your ability why the work needs changing. If you’re funny, try to spice the criticisms up with some humor. Be serious but not deadly serious.
The creator needs to see you as credible and reliable but not intimidating or brutal if you can help it. I can’t help you on crafting that ideal image for yourself today (persuasive conversation would be another article entirely) but I wish you the best of luck. Just remember Rules 1-4 and Rule 5 will come more naturally.
Rule 6: Listen
You know what? Even if you’ve used all the above rules, you might be wrong. Sometimes you accidentally miss something in the project, or perhaps you misunderstood a crucial piece. There are many times when you need to put aside your own ego as the critic and listen to the artist/ creator. They almost always know more about the work than you do; and maybe the thing you didn’t like was placed intentionally and with good reason. Sharing your opinion and expressing it is good, but you also need to realize that your criticisms aren’t always correct. That’s not to say they’re invalid or don’t have merit but they might not be necessary. And that’s OK.
BONUS POINT: Encourage the creator to enlist other critics so more opinions than yours are considered. The artist might be more likely to see your opinions as objective if more people have similar issues.
Hopefully you’ve learned a thing or two about how to be a good critic. Like anything, criticism is an art which needs to be practiced. Nobody expects you to nail it when your friend asks you how their thing is. But remember: trust your opinion, temper the artist’s ego without crushing them and, above all else, make sure your notes are constructive.
How did you find this article? Leave your criticisms in the comments below! If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!
Till next time