In addition to writing I take photographs. I am good at both. Landscapes are aggravating—I haven’t composed a satisfying one yet—and commas and I have a difficult relationship, but I have studied the forms of both arts and have practiced. Family, friends, or acquaintances who know my dedication to these arts will often ask if I will look at their pictures or stories and tell them what I think. The first stage of my answer is always the same, “Do you want me to tell you how great they are, or do you want an actual critique?”
Critiquing is a rare and unappreciated skill, and it is a skill. Giving a critique is not just saying you like something or don’t like something. It is a skill that must be learned and that requires knowledge of the forms of whatever is being critiqued, be it prose, poetry, photography, or surgery. Receiving a critique is also a skill that must be learned. I studied architecture in graduate school. We had studio crits every week. As a graduate school, my class was comprised entirely of adults. Even the youngest and most naive amongst us had full undergraduate degrees under their belts. Every week included people crying in the hallway. It wasn’t that we were particularly horrid to each other, although some professors did use critiques more to assert their power over cowering students that to teach. It takes effort to learn and internalize that it is an individual work being critiqued, not your worth as an individual.
We had some core rules for critiques that I have encountered again and again in worthwhile critique groups.
- The creator of the work may introduce the work, but is not required to.
- The creator of the work will answer direct questions, but is not allowed to defend the work. Listen.
- Only the work presented may be critiqued. Not other works. Not any aspect of the creator as a person.
- If you say something negative, you must say something positive, and vice versa.
The last is not to spare the feelings of the creator. Notice it works both ways. If you say something positive, you must also say something negative. The purpose is to get the critic to examine the work. There is always something good in every work. There is always something not so good in every work.
The common phrase “I am my own worst critic,” captures the natural and proper state of things. As creator of a work, you have examined that work more closely than any critic will. Critics will spot things you missed, but you still have unparalleled detailed knowledge of the work. You know the things that don’t work, and the things that don’t work as well as they could. Those categories usually cover everything. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be satisfied with a work. There is a monumental difference between thinking a work is the best you can do at the moment, or good enough, and thinking it is beyond criticism. A very populous culture on the internet puts their works up for critique and demand that people say only nice things. Idiots and fools engaged in a complete waste of time. Nothing you nor I will ever create will be perfect. Learn to separate your self worth from your work, grow a thick skin, take your lumps, and learn your craft.
That said, most of the negative comments these delicate flowers are trying to avoid are equally useless. Another annoying culture teems on the internet. I don’t know if the internet spawned it, aggravated it, or merely highlighted it. A very large number of people on the internet, and in the meat world, think the statements “It is not good, therefore I don’t like it.” and “I don’t like it, therefore it is not good.” are equivalent. They are not. I don’t care if you didn’t like it. I don’t know who you are, other than you’re a nobody, a nothing, an insignificant speck of flotsam in the gyre of humanity. Same as me. Same as everyone. Some blogs and other sites purport to review movies or books or whatnots, but are nothing more than an individual or group saying they didn’t like this therefore it isn’t good or they did like this therefore it is good. Tell me why a work is good or not good or you tell me nothing. In the story arts, tell me about plot, setting, characterization. In the performance arts tell me about performance. In the visual arts tell me about composition, colour, light, balance, discord. Tell me how a work makes you feel, but tell me why the work makes you feel that.
Roger Ebert, to pick a name most people will recognize, is a good critic. In part, I have seen so many films I have read his reviews of that I have a good idea of our comparative tastes. That aside, he still writes a darn good review. He gives enough information, without giving away too much, that I can decide if I am likely to enjoy a film or not whatever his final judgement. He and other entertainment critics are in a special position in needing to convey the tone of the plot without giving away the plot, but he manages. I don’t have to rely on his thumbs up or thumbs down. His critiques provide enough information for me to form my own opinion whether a film is likely worth the gamble of admission.
The vast majority of user reviews on websites are useless. Two hundred words on how The Latest Bestseller is the best book you have ever read in your life ever, how it cured your cat and spiced up your love life, give me no useful information at all—except for a worrisome glimpse into your relationship with your pets. Star ratings are, if possible, even less useful. The anonymous clicking of buttons provides no clues for weeding out the merely inane from the insane. Sites which provide a relative breakdown of 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 star ratings are a huge step up. I’ll discuss why when I tackle statistics.
Giving and receiving critiques are both skills that most people have not mastered or even attempted. If you want to improve your craft or if you put your work out for public acclaim, you must learn to take a critique. To review the fundamental points for receiving a critique:
- It is not about you.
- Don’t defend.
You got a bad critique? Move on. Don’t pick fights. Do ask yourself if the critique is bad because you don’t agree with it or bad because it doesn’t provide any useful insight. If the critic missed the key point of your work that explains everything, did he miss it because he’s a drooling idiot and his mother dresses him funny, or did he miss it because you were not clear?
When giving a critique:
- Critique the work, not the creator.
- Be clear and precise in your statements.
- Reference the forms of the work.
- Find the positive and the negative. Both are present in every work.
Go out. Have fun. Help each other. And if you want me to look at your pictures or your stories, ask yourself—do you want me to tell you how great they are, or do you want an actual critique?