Critique UP

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So here we are at the start of a new series. Each time I finish a session of stories I am well aware of all the shortcomings in my work, but they don’t bother me too much. The fact is that three days is a very quick sprint to bring a story from initial concept to polished conclusion, no matter how short it may be. Almost every Thursday morning finds me setting aside a long list of improvements for my story, just so that I can meet my deadline. Not every creative effort has to be targeting perfection, after all, and its never been my ambition for this blog to produce top-quality narratives that are ready for publishing. Really I just wanted this blog to be a constant stream of ideas and experience, knowing full well that for every nugget of gold there’s going to be a lots of dirt clods along the way.

But not all of my work is meant for practice, I do also write other stories that I am trying to polish and mold into their best possible forms. In these situations I have to seriously weigh every shortcoming and flaw that I see in my work, and even open myself up to asking others what problems they see in it as well. Opening up one’s work for critique is a very vulnerable thing to do, and it’s hard to not get emotionally wounded by the criticisms that inevitably follow. I don’t really want to focus on the proper way to receive those critiques, though, I feel there are plenty of resources available that cover that end of the exchange. Instead I’d rather take some time for the other side of things, discussing how to give helpful and nurturing feedback if ever you are asked your opinion on a piece.

We’ll begin by looking at the wrong method for providing critique. Unfortunately, it is the more common method, our culture has developed a trend for sharp and cynical put-downs whenever evaluating other people’s creative efforts. We even provide this “service” to the creator when they never even asked for our feedback. The title of “critic” is all too accurate, and many who carry this title seek nothing more than to cut stories apart for the entertainment of others. Indeed at times it seems that professional critics view themselves as performers, whose purpose has more to do with amusing the audience with their biting wit, instead of actually providing a fair and meaningful dissection of a work. With the advent of social media and a “comments sections” at the bottom of most internet articles we’ve even taken the meta a step further with the audience critiquing the work of that critic.

In addition to this penchant for snark, our culture is also very competitive. Our main method for appraising a work is to compare it to another and see which is better. Art schools and creative industries have very little patience for any but the top two percent, and cuts from the programs are quick and severe. Perhaps these methods really are the best for producing revenue, I don’t know, but I have a hard time believing that they are ideal for cultivating happy and creative people.

I actually spent a short stint of college in one of those art programs, and quite frankly I did amazing. That’s not to say that I “succeeded” in the program, quite frankly I was in the bottom half of each class I took and I never had a prayer of progressing to the more specialized projects. But I say that I did amazing simply because I developed and improved. I listened to the instruction that was given and I went from drawing shapeless lumps to recognizable figures. I don’t care that no one was ever going to pay me for this stuff, I was better than before and that was enough for me.

I think that’s a fair and honest critique of myself. It doesn’t make my work out to be something more than it was, but it also doesn’t discredit the good that was accomplished. So can we develop a method for a kinder form of honest critique like this? I believe so. Really it all comes down to intent, intent of the author and intent of the reader. When we have these sorted out, nurturing feedback will follow naturally.

Appreciating the intent of the author has two branches, the first of which has to do with understanding their intent in even writing the story. When we provide feedback for a story our default metric seems to be “well do I like it.” But we all know that “liking” something is often subjective, and that there are many things which we do not like but which we can still acknowledge were well made and which seem to have accurately captured the author’s intent. Perhaps the author’s intent was even to make something which, by nature, was unlikable. Should we say they did a poor job because they succeeded in the very thing they set out to do?

Another question we should ask ourselves is what was the author’s intent in even seeking our critique? The simple truth is that not all people that request critique really want it. When my three-year-old son shows me his latest drawing he does not really want to know what I think of his picture, he just wants to know what I think of him. You might be tempted to say well that is a three-year-old and a grown adult is a very different thing. I’m afraid I would disagree. We may have learned how to be more subtle with our years of experience, but we very often play the same games we employed as children. To be clear, I am not advocating that you coddle others or give them disingenuous praise for their work, I am merely suggesting that you reflect on what their true intentions are and then use your own wisdom in choosing how to respond.

But now let’s assume a scenario where the author truly is looking for constructive criticism. More than anything they want to improve so that their work can be the best it can be, and you could do them a great favor in helping them to hone their craft. How can we do this in a way that doesn’t come at the expense of kindness?

As I’ve tried to find a way to express this sort of positive critique my mind settled on mathematics of all things. In order to provide any review you first have to identify three values related to it. We have to know the value of what was written, we’ll call that value 1. Next we must know the value of the ideal, or the potential of what could have been written, we’ll call that value 3. And finally we have to know the difference between those two values, obviously that is 2. Now with these three values there are two ways we can express their relations to one another. The first way follows the pattern of “This is what you should have done (3), but these are all the things you did wrong (2), and this is what we were left with as a result (1).”

3 – 2 = 1

The is the pattern of the cynical and competitive methods mentioned above. You can recognize it in a review by the abundance of that middle term “these are all the things you did wrong” in all its various forms. As the mathematical equation suggests, this sort of critique is literally a negative perspective, one that pulls a work down to a lower term.

But now for that other way of expressing these values. You could instead use the pattern of “This is what you’ve already accomplished (1), and by incorporating these other elements into that foundation (2), this is what you your work could become (3).”

1 + 2 = 3

This sort of approach is literally a positive perspective, one that looks to lift the author to a higher term. Please note that all the same information has been conveyed with this approach, we haven’t had to leave out any of our recommended improvements by expressing things more kindly. I think we sometimes forget that brutal honesty is not the only kind of honesty, and it is not a more honest form of honesty because of its brutality. Uplifting honesty is just as honest, and greatly more helpful.

I want to stress here the importance of the first term “this is what you have already accomplished.” In either form of critique we need to establish a base metric, so why not do that with the good the author has already accomplished? A truly fair analysis of a work should be willing to give equal attention both to what is good and what is lacking, not solely focused on the negative. I think you’ll find you are far less likely to convince anyone of how they can grow in their work until you first convince them that you see the work which has already occurred.

For the second term, notice how in the positive form we are stressing a relationship between what they have done and what they could do to improve. Incorporate these elements into your foundation. We are suggesting that this better form of writing belongs in their story, whereas the negative approach suggests that all those good things are apart from their story which makes their situation seem hopeless.

And of course in the third term we leave them with a vision, an invigorating glimpse of what they can become. In the negative approach we leave them at the lowest positive value of the equation. It all comes down to the direction you want your critique to flow it, are you going to use it to drag them to the lowest possible point or uplift them to the highest?

I sincerely feel that the thoughtful critique of creative work does so much more than improve the work in question, it has the potential to improve the very soul who authored it. As writers, we of all people should understand that our words can have great power, both to break and to build, it is our obligation and privilege to do the latter.

On Thursday I’d like to present a short story on which I will immediately provide a quick analysis. I will try to do so in a way that is honest and fair, which takes into account all of its flaws and shortcomings, but which presents them in a way that is kind and encouraging. Obviously that all sounds quite self-serving, but you know something? I don’t think there’s anything  wrong with that! Feel free to come back then if you want to see me be nice to myself 🙂

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