How to be a Good Critiquer

I posted this a while back on my personal blog. But I feel like it belongs here.

So here it is.

***

Once upon a time, when I was a kid, I loved Edding’s fantasy works. After having re-read them with an adult’s critical eye (years ago), “love” transformed into “meh.” But there are a few nuggets here and there that make sense. For this post, Beldin’s philosophical research into the difference between “right” and “good” apply.

Just as there is a difference between “right” and “good,” there is a difference between “critique” and “criticism.”

When a writer, a painter, and artist, a craftsman, or even a computer programmer hands you something to look at with the stipulation that he/she wants your opinion on it, wants you to critique it, this is an implied contract.

You, as the reviewer, upon accepting this duty, have agreed to go over this person’s work, within a reasonable time frame and tell them what you find. What stood out to you? What made you smile? What made you scratch your head in confusion? What made you puke? Did something stand out as awesome or just out of place? Does it make sense? Why?

There is a good chance that the person who approached you to critique their work is a friend or at the very least someone who in some way respects you and your opinions regarding their work. When they approach you, asking for your opinion, it means they want to improve. It means they want you to help them improve.

Telling the applicant “I liked it” or “It sucks” and saying little else is useless. The applicant wants to know the nit-noid details of your reactions. Why did you like it? Did you enjoy a character specifically or the concept in general? Does the sculpture bring up certain emotions in you? If so, what?  Was there a particular line of code that you felt to be elegant? Why does it suck? Is the character not acting consistently? Is blue the wrong color? Was Java perhaps not the best language to use in this instance?

Your applicant needs to know WHY you feel the way that you do. The applicant wants to know in under a year. The applicant does not want to chase you down, pin you bodily to a wall and threaten to torture you with crazed, blood sucking wombats just to get the critique you promised them.

Also, there is a WAY of critiquing that is helpful while others are not so much. Tearing the applicant down until they feel like the smallest particle of shit that isn’t even worth degrading the bottom of your shoe is NOT useful. It will accomplish one of 2 things:

1 – The applicant will cease to trust you. There’s a good chance that even if you had valid points for why the work was nothing more than one big hot mess, the applicant is probably not going to listen, because they’re focused on how you’re being a dick, not on what you’re saying. If your goal is to never be bothered by this person again, for ANYTHING (including sending you a Christmas card), you may have achieved it rather spectacularly.

2 – The applicant may just give up altogether. And this is tragic. True, very few people are the next Hemingway or Steve Jobs or Da Vinci or whatever, but does that really matter? For some people just HAVING the outlet is enjoyable. Getting better at it and improving on it only makes it more enjoyable. Is it really necessary to treat them like shit under the guise of “honesty”?

The applicant is not asking you to lie. They’re asking you to be honest, but you can be nice about it.

Likewise, sugar-coating the whole thing under a phrase similar to “I liked it” has equally similar problems.

1 – The applicant will cease to trust you. They will begin to believe that you either didn’t pay attention to the project or that you’re lying in order to keep the peace.  This is more than a little frustrating. There is very little out there that is perfect and chances are  your applicant knows that. They are asking for your help to improve their skills and you are either incapable or unwilling to do so.  There’s a very good chance that your applicant will not approach you with another project again.

2 – The applicant will not improve. Or maybe they will, but not as well because they had little to no useful guidance from you. This is also tragic. Have you ever seen those “live auditions” in which thousands of people compete for a limited number of slots on a talent show? Have you ever wondered while watching some of those auditions “Who the HELL heartlessly lied to this person and allowed them to think they were star material when they sound like they’re gargling glass and look worse?” Or maybe they were OK, but not awesome enough to compete on that level yet.  Guess what? The people who held that person up while constantly saying “I liked it” and giving them nothing else to go on, no suggestions to improve – they’re the people who allowed the contestant (who is now sobbing in shame and public humiliation) to believe they were ready for the big leagues when they weren’t even close.

Saying “I liked/hated it” and nothing else is akin to breaking someone’s leg deliberately and expecting them to thank you for it.

So how do you critique, Katty? (I can hear the snarkiness in your voice when you ask that) How do you tread the fine line between “right” and “good”?

Whenever my Dad how to do a peer evaluation, he always opened with a compliment, even if he was going to end with a soul-crushing review of how they were fucking up teaching advanced mathematics. I’m not asking you, as the critiquer, to sugar-coat a turd, but you don’t need to force feed it to the applicant, either. Find something nice about the work. ANYTHING. “Using expired credit cards for mosaic tile can’t be an easy medium to work with.” (Do you see what happened there? I didn’t say anything about the work itself, only the medium used and acknowledged that the artist had chosen to stretch themselves creatively. Whether or not they did it WELL is a whole different question.)

Number 2 is to tell the truth. Telling it politely is nice. “I didn’t like it because XXX,” or “I liked it for XXX…” Not everyone uses that same language. Some people work better when the words of truth are punctuated by profanity. This is fine, so long as you don’t go saying shit that tells the applicant to just give up because of how much they suck or how fucking awesomely genius they are. Reverse psychology and/or lying does not work in the critique venue, especially when employed by amateurs who slept through their pysch 101 class.

Next, use “I” messages. Do you remember these from middle school? That entire week of having lessons on how to use “I messages” so other people don’t feel bad? That week of your life you wish you could get back or at least not have nightmares about (Am I the only one with those dreams?)?  I feel…, I thought…, It struck me as…, I didn’t understand why… Yeah, I know. It’s sappy, but by phrasing your findings as your opinions rather than hard judgements you increase the chances of your applicant listening to you.

Offer a place to go, if you can, that may help underscore your point and still allow your applicant to improve. “You might be interested in these books about coding over here,” or “There’s local group that does stuff like this. Have you heard of them?”

I will be the first to say that I have, on occasion, broken these rules. Sometimes it was because I was feeling childishly retaliatory because of something that was rudely said to me (Oh, bitch, you did NOT just say THAT.  Now I will turn off my personal filter and FUCKING DESTROY YOU.). Sadly, the reviewer may have actually had a valid point, but because of the demeaning and hurtful way it was phrased, I had no desire to listen.

Other times, I had no excuse that I can remember. I tried to follow my rules, I really did, but something about that person constantly making the same mistakes over and over, week after week, drove me insane and I blabbed. I felt like dogshit afterwards because I had just trampled all over this person in the exact way I hate to be treated, and I suppose that’s my only saving grace. I apologized later, but it sounded fake. I’m certain the other person felt the same way, because really, how do apologize for being brutally honest other than “I shouldn’t have said it like that”? There’s just no graceful way out of that.

I have no idea if this rant will help anyone. I’m just getting tired of being told to accept all criticism in the name of professionalism and growing a thicker skin when 90% of the “critiques” are either uselessly sparse, or treated as some sort of invitation for people to let their inner asshole come out for no useful reason.

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About kattywampusbooks

A SAHM with delusions of literacy.
This entry was posted in critique, Writer, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How to be a Good Critiquer

  1. Pingback: Double Checking Reality in a Work of Fantasy | kattywampusbooks

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