How to Constructively Critique Writing and Possibly Anything Else

I aim high =)

As a firm believer in “doing unto others what I would have done unto me”, I try to keep feedback heading to other writers. Especially right now while I’m trying to finish up my second and third drafts of Evangeline. But what if you’d like to help someone like me out and you just don’t know how to critique? Or perhaps how do you want to be able to spot a good critique on your own work?

I do believe the following applies to all types of art and probably work in general.

The first thing to understand (perhaps the most important) is that everyone else’s work is yes a reflection of them, but how you take it is a reflection on you! That previous sentence is an example, why did I use italics and bold? Some might read the italics as condescencion as if I’m pointing out something that I think is obvious to everyone but them. The bold could be a pre-emptive attack announcing that I will spend the rest of this blog back-handing people who’ve given me critiques that I disagreed with. The point is you read from what I say (and another’s work) through the lens of yourself. To you bold is inflamatory, to me I’m trying to communicate clearly which part I am stressing.

Now, in the critique, a good critique (in my opinion), it is that reflection I want. I know what I meant when I wrote a piece. If I wanted to know what I meant I would ask myself! The reflection tells me what selected readers (as proxies for all readers) might perceive or misperceive. I thought this line of dialogue was obviously from speaker B, but you had no idea, so I need to rework that.

So the method of critiquing is not about whether the artist followed the rules. “I don’t know enough about grammar to know if you did things wrong,” is not an answer for any writer. You are not there primarily to be the amateur grammar police, you are firstly there to tell the writer if he is communicating what he intends. I wanted my character to be brave; you saw him as arrogant and cocky.

But to tell me what I was communicating you must know what was communicated to you. That is the whole key! To give a good critique you aren’t focused on what the work was or was not, you are focused on what you felt/thought/wished for when you viewed the piece. A good critiquer is good at recognizing their own sentiments. For example, I could read a piece and say to the artist “I’m bored”, but a good critiquer will ask themselves “Why am I bored?”

I can be bored in the most action packed scene, why am I bored here?

“Well . . . nothing seems to be happening.”

“I just blew up the main characters three older brothers, how is that ‘nothing’?”

“Well . . . I guess I didn’t feel like the relationship mattered. It might as well have been strangers in Africa dying.”

“They’re BROTHERS! I told you that on page one!”

“They didn’t feel like brothers. They felt like new roomates.”

Notice the critiquer is not solving the problem; they are identifying the problem. Now if I am thoroughly tempted, I might make an example in someone’s work about how I think it could have accomplished (what I felt they were trying to accomplish), but that should only be attempted when you think clearly the other person just needs a nudge to refine THEIR direction. Not a shove in YOUR direction. It is the artist’s job to adjust their communication (work) to make your response match their intent.

So the short answer is, if you want to help someone improve their work don’t figure out the work–understand how the work makes you feel and communicate that feeling back to them.

I think this can work with just about any situation that calls for feedback because at its heart it is not about controlling the product it is about helping the person. Your job is to explain what made you feel how about something so that they can communicate what they  wanted to. Jim comes over and says he’s having girl problems. Your response should not be to explain everything Jim does wrong, how his very choices are wrong, and what he should do if he wants to be like you. Your response should be, “Well, I get the sense that you’re not really mad about what time was on the clock when she called you back. I get the impression like you’re more bothered that you were pulled away from something else. Like you didn’t really want to be there in the first place?”

Notice the bold? The center of helping is helping the other person achieve their objective, not yours.

That’s just a roughie. Do with it what you like.

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