A critique is one of the most powerful tools that can help a creative person grow. And it isn’t just a matter of getting a critique of your work that can be powerful; learning to deliver a critique well can also help you improve your own work.
What is important to understand is what a critique is and what a critique is not. A critique is a carefully thought-out response, and not an opportunity to attack someone because you don’t like their work. Similarly, if you ask someone to critique your work, understand that you are asking them to invest a fair amount of effort. If you just want someone to tell you, “I liked it, I really liked it,” then what you are looking for is reassurance, and while comforting, reassurance that you have talent is not going to help you grow and improve. So consider this well before asking for a critique, and take your time to develop the critique you are going to deliver.
Surviving the Critique
No matter how the critique comes out, remember it is not a definitive judgment of your work. This is a very important concept to understand, and even more difficult to believe. It isn’t a review, where someone is judging whether or not to recommend your work to someone else. It is something you have asked someone to do for you, to point out your work’s strengths and weaknesses, where your piece is working and where it needs improvement. It is not an evaluation of yourself or your ability as a creative person. So whether it’s positive or negative, do not take it personally; even though it can be difficult when you are disappointed by what you learn, stick with it.
Also, there isn’t anything to be gained by arguing the critique, for example: “but don’t you think that the character sacrificing himself will move the audience?” If you have to ask that question, then it should be obvious that the person critiquing your work doesn’t feel that way. Perhaps the audience will be moved, perhaps not, but you aren’t going to be able discuss and prove this point with everyone who reads your book or sees your film, video, or play. So, if you are being told that what you want to accomplish isn’t working, it is better to ask what could make it stronger than to contend that the critique is incorrect. After all, the reason you are asking to have your work critiqued is to find out what works and what needs improvement. Remember to take from the critique what is valuable to you, and discard the rest.
The best advice I have ever received on giving critiques is as follows: Avoid value judgments when possible, either positive or negative. One of my teachers once explained how his son was taking an art class, and the teacher told the boy that trees were not blue. That is a value judgment, and the kind of statement that can crush the artistic spirit. Telling someone their work is either good or bad can severely limit what they are trying to accomplish and are willing to attempt in the future. Instead of using value judgments such as good or bad, try using terms like strong, worked well, or it feels weak, could be stronger, or could be developed more. It is fine to question what someone is trying to accomplish in your critique of their work, and if it isn’t clear, just let them know it isn’t clear. These are valuable insights and just what is wanted.
It often helps to have some kind of relationship with the person you are asking to critique your work, especially since you are asking quite a bit of them. By relationship I don’t mean family, significant other, or even necessarily your friends. Critiques from mentors, colleagues, and support groups (think writing groups or filmmaker collectives) are going to be the most powerful because the person giving the critique is experienced in the field.
These relationships will often produce a critique that is expressed as value judgments, which I normally find to be less than effective. This is because: by the time you have found a mentor to take you on, there is an already an accepted established baseline of skill. The mentor sees your potential, otherwise they would not have taken you on, and their task here is to push you past what is limiting you. Each mentor/teacher will interact differently with each of their charges, but this is due to a specific relationship that has been entered into, or has developed over time.
A poorly delivered critique can be valueless to the recipient, or worse, it can be devastating. Moreover, just like learning to receive a critique, learning to give a powerful uplifting critique is an important part of the creative process. Even delivering something that is mostly negative, if done well, can help inspire the person receiving the critique. The simplest way to accomplish this is by using a technique sometimes called “The Sandwich.” What that means is start off with a positive, then discuss the weaknesses, and finish off with what worked well. For years I thought it was best to start off with what I thought was bad and then move onto what I thought was good. Using the latter technique left me feeling like I wasn’t connecting with the person whose work I was critiquing and, indeed, I wasn’t. Leading off with a negative will, under most circumstances, turn off the recipient and they won’t be open to your points, no matter how valuable they may be.
You may be thinking, “Well, what if I can’t find anything positive to say?” This is where giving a critique can be really helpful to you. I find for well-written and well-made projects it is difficult to find areas that could benefit from improvement, and it is easier to critique something that has weaknesses and problems. However, it is extremely important to find something about the project that is positive, no matter how weak the overall project is. The point is to let the person know that you are on their side. Is it a script? Perhaps the dialog is poor, but the scene descriptions are very effective. In that case lead with the scene description. If the audio of the finished piece hard to hear, but the cinematography is excellent, start with how the cinematography is moving, or appropriate to the script, and then discuss that the sound clarity could be improved. After that, be sure to finish with another of the project’s strong points.
So, even if at first you feel you can’t find anything positive to say, work at it, and find something. You may even discover that you begin to appreciate the potential of the work. Honing your skill to find something hidden in works of others can apply to your own work and benefit you in the end.
Group discussions can be very powerful for the recipient, as well as the members of the group. It is important to establish the rules early on and have everyone stick to them. This creates a safe environment where everyone can contribute. It doesn’t mean that everyone will agree, but the net result can often help point out the strengths and weaknesses and clarify the direction the project takes. Remember, you don’t have to do what anyone or any group suggests, but if you want a “preview” of how an audience will react to your audience, getting many well-presented critiques at the same sitting can be enlightening and empowering.
I highly recommend joining a writing or filmmaking group and start observing how others critique, what makes some critiques stronger, and others less effective, and then join in on the fun.
Bingo! The "Sandwich Method" is also used in the evaluations of Toastmasters speakers. The critique or evaluation is giving with constructive criticism, and in closing, offer encouragement