Tips for Critiquing and Getting Good Critiques
New members to critical fora often feel reticent to jump in and critique a poem, article, or artwork. “What do I know about poetry? What do I know about art?” This is especially felt when an inexperienced member sees a work by a member of the forum who is obviously accomplished and knowledgeable. “She obviously knows what she’s doing, even if I don’t know what she’s doing.” This either leads to no comments, or unhelpful critiques. But every poet, writer, and other artist needs good critiques, helpful critiques. Feedback is how we find that we are on track with our art. Without feedback, we feel like we’re tossing our work down an endless well, waiting for it to hit the bottom. With uncritical or barebones feedback, such as, “Good job,” we’re left without fully knowing if we’re meeting our goals or if the critics are just being polite.
Another thing that less experienced critics can bring to helping the artist is giving the “common man’s” perspective. Sure, an experienced and knowledgeable poet may be able to scan the poem and show every hiccup in the rhythm, point out problems with the rhyme, or where synecdoche might have been better than onomatopoeia, whatever them critters is, but experts tend to become removed from a general audience’s views and feelings. They become co-opted by the system. Poetic and critiquing communities tend to develop a groupthink, and it is only through the infusion of new blood that the members of the group are constantly re-grounded into the mainstream of audience reality. Otherwise, those experienced poets can wind up talking to each other, and they start getting into more poetic complexity and density, and leave most of the general audience behind. As artists, we need not only feedback, but specifically the feedback of uncorrupted sources. We need the opinions of the new members.
A third point on the need for critiques is that an artist’s mistakes are usually invisible to him. No matter how brilliant, knowledgeable and experienced an artist is, they still need another set of eyes on their work. This is especially true of the written word, since it can be subject to typos. Even those writers who know better make errors with homophones such as their, they’re, and there. With speed, the brain’s processing works differently, and the brain isn’t in the typing fingers. So, fresh eyes are important for every artist and every work.
The final reason that artists need feedback is because a critique is not about the work of art. It is about the critic’s reaction to the art. Each critic has different assumptions, knowledge, prejudices, beliefs and experiences. This is what they bring to the critique. They mix that stew in with the artwork, and bring forth reactions. An American of European descent will probably react differently to a picture of or poem about a lynching than an African-American will. They have been raised in different paradigms, and those differing perspectives provide different feedback to the artist.
Since artists need good critiques to improve their art, this article will look at critiques both from the side of how to solicit better feedback, and how to give better feedback.
Soliciting Better Feedback
It is far easier for a person to give good feedback in a critique if they know what the artist is trying to do with the work, specifically:
- Audience—Many poems or other works of art are directed to a general audience. This is usually the default assumption for a critic, but it may not be the author’s intent. If the poem is directed to a more specific audience, the poet should say so up front so that the critics will have more direction. For instance, an audience that might be very different from the general might be a group of strategists. They tend to be more abstract thinkers, and might be able to deal with more abstraction than a general audience. Another limited group might be academic poets, meaning poetry professors, MFA students, and literature buffs who are more likely to appreciate obscure allusions and densely-packed poetic devices. Specify your audience when you post the work so there is no question.
- Target—What publication or type of publication are you targeting? If the poem is targeting publications that publish sonic poetry, it’s going to be a very different critique than if the poet is targeting a magazine for concrete poetry. An avante garde publication wants something very different from a conservative, neo-classical publication.
- Stage—How finished is the poem or artwork? Sometimes an artist puts out a work for initial review, knowing it is neither perfect nor finished. Other times, the artist puts out a work they think is finished, at least until the critiques come in. It is helpful for the critic to know if there are parts that he doesn’t need to worry about. For instance, say a poem is in a preliminary stage, and the poet wants comments on its rhythm, it’s cadence, and other sonic qualities, as well as its clarity in delivering the message, but isn’t worried about spelling or punctuation, yet. If the poet provides this information up front for the critics, they won’t waste their time on nitpicking those items.
- Focus—Is there a particular thing about the work or portion of it that the artist is unsatisfied with? As with these other points of information, tell the critics up front.
- History—If this is a revision of previous works, the critics should be able to see where the work started. Otherwise, they may be telling that artist to change or eliminate something that had been added as an improvement.
- Completeness—Is this a stand-alone work, part of a series, or both? Often artworks that are part of a series support each other through context and by each having a piece of the larger puzzle that is the artist’s world. If the work is not going to stand alone, then the critics need to know that.
- Form—In many arts, there are particular forms or media. These are rules or tools that the artist places on himself to bring out greater creativity and problem-solving abilities, or because they better support the statement the artist is trying to make with the work. Give the information to the critics. Even if not all of your potential critics know anything about the form or medium, some will, and it will affect their critiques. The artist can also help to educate his less knowledgeable volunteer critics this way.
- Other—Is there other information that might benefit or direct the critics in their work? If the purpose of the work might not be clear, maybe that should be included. If there are historical antecedents to the work, or obscure allusions, informing the critic, maybe in notes after the work, is a good idea.
First, let’s discuss types of feedback one can give in a critique, and then we’ll look at some rules for critiquing.
Types of Feedback
Feedback comes in many forms, some more technical than others, but also some that are easy for a beginner to give.
- Response to the work—What did it mean to you? Did it communicate something? Did it stir your emotions? Did it bore you? Did it confuse you? Did it fascinate you? Did it horrify you? Where did it do these things? In a specific portion of the work? Many times the thing the artist needs most is to find whether the work is effective. Your reaction, as critic, can tell that. These reactions can be sub-classified:
- Emotional reaction
- Intellectual reaction
- Experiential reaction, in other words, how did it affect your senses? Did it stimulate them? If it’s a poem, did it work sonically? How about visually?
- Salability—Do you think a magazine or collector would want this artwork? Why or why not? Even if you aren’t an editor, publisher, or art collector, take a stab at it. To paraphrase an old quote, you may not know art, but you know what you like. Would you pay money for it? What would it take to make it more marketable for you?
- Technical help—Obviously, this generally applies to more experienced critics who can talk about mixing colors for effects in oils, processing photographs for light values, or altering alliteration in accentual verse.
Rules for Critiquing
Here are several suggestions that should be kept in mind while critiquing:
- Make sure you have explicit permission. Even better is for someone to come to you requesting the critique. However politely you put it, the basic point of a critique is to call someone’s baby ugly. Although your comments may seem harmless and unemotionally delivered to you, they may seem earth-shattering and mean to the author. Make sure they know up front that they asked for it. While it may seem obvious that a poem is going to be critiqued in a forum for critique, look at the practices of everyone else on the forum. Are real critiques going on? Or is it a mutual admiration society? If the latter, you might not be thanked for giving a real critique. Even if you are in a forum where many people give strong critiques, there will be people there who are more sensitive than others.
- Be polite.
- Ask questions first, and comment later. Make sure that everything is clear as to why something was written as it was and who the audience is. H. Beam Piper wrote in one of his books a spoken sequence out of one character’s mouth that can be generally applied to most human interactions. To paraphrase it, “When someone says something that you don’t understand, don’t call him crazy. Ask him what he means.” Verify your assumptions with the poet whose work you are criticizing before commenting and sticking your foot down your gullet.
- You will also find that criticism presented as questions can be less threatening to the writer’s ego. Here are some examples:
- What would happen if you were to change this in such-and-such a way?
- Now I may not understand this, but would it be clearer if you do this?
- This isn’t terribly clear to my addled brain, what do you mean in this part of the poem? (Also note the example of self-deprecating humor.)
- Now my elder brother always said I wasn’t the brightest penny in circulation, so could you explain this to me? (Note that this is another example of self-deprecating humor that can soften the question.)
- What would happen if you were to try this?
- Reflect what you hear or understand someone to be saying back to them. Translate it into your own words and see if you understand what they are saying before commenting further.
- If you detect a possible opportunity for improvement, try to be able to present where the opportunity is, why it might be better another way, and at least one suggested way to make improvements.
- Remember, you are making suggestions. Unless you have true editorial power, the writer makes the final decisions.
- Beware of using humor in your critique. You are probably commenting on something that the author has poured his or her heart and soul into. Using levity or humor might give him the impression you are making fun of him. It is also more likely that your humor may touch a very raw nerve in the author, especially if the poem is about a serious subject. Self-deprecating humor can be okay as long as it doesn’t seem put on as satire. Your best bet is just to try not to be funny, especially if the critique is written. People can’t see how you intend humor when they are reading it in black and white, so it becomes open to their interpretation.
- Make your thinking explicit. Don’t make the artist have to come back to you several times with questions to clarify why you are reacting as you are. Do your own analysis. You can present your comments something like: “I suggest this, which would do that for your poem, because I believe such-and-such.” With this being how to improve, that being what they will achieve by making a change, and such-and-such being your fundamental assumptions about the purpose of the artworks, artists, or art that have been challenged by this work. For example: “I suggest that you use more concrete imagery in your poem, which would make it accessible to a larger audience, because studies have shown that only one third of the people deal well with abstraction, and only about three percent of the population deals well enough with it to get through this whole poem.” Don’t just say, “Make it more concrete.” Give the artist reasons and reasons behind your reasons.
Accepting Criticism Gladly
The first step in a critique is for the artist to put the artwork out for review. The second step is for the critics to respond. The third step is for the artist to accept and respond to the criticisms. This can be the toughest part, especially if you’ve sweated to get your artwork just right, and you thought everyone would love it, that everyone would get it, but now this dirty, rotten critic has come along and said terrible things. Better follow a few steps for this one:
- Prepare yourself before being subjected to the critique.
- Remember, the critics are trying to help, even when it doesn’t sound like it.
- Remember that the comments are not about your art, they are about the critic’s response to the art. He’s not really calling your baby ugly, just his vision of your baby.
- Some critics are changeable with the winds and their moods. They might love your work today and hate it tomorrow, or vice versa. Don’t count on a critic to be consistent.
- Your job in the critique or while reading the critique is to mine for gold. Most critiques have a lot of dross and talus sliding down into them, but you have to find the precious nuggets that will improve your work. That’s your main purpose in this, to learn and improve your work.
- Remember that you can always learn from people who know less than you and from drunks and fools. To those for whom life and art are simple things, there are no illusions.
- Ask questions. Get to the root of the comments. Your critics have different beliefs and assumptions than you do. Sometimes their comments will come from a belief that you don’t agree with or a false assumption about the artwork. Get behind the comments to the critic’s thinking. They might know things that you don’t that inform their suggestions.
- If the critic is confused by your work, others will be, too. Do not dismiss comments about the clarity of your work lightly.
- Some critics have an ax to grind. They want everyone else’s work to conform to their theories or ideas. Watch for them. Understand them. And remember that just because they have an ax to grind doesn’t mean they can’t be right occasionally. Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn or two.
- Because a critic is not well spoken or tedious and can’t get to the point or seems rude is not a reason to shut your ears to them. Criticism is a gift that should not be returned unopened because of the packaging.
- Volume does matter. If you constantly get the same comments from different critics, audience members, or patrons of your art, maybe there’s a valid reason for it. Don’t hold onto something too tightly. You may be stopping better ideas from coming.
- Remember, the suggestions to make your work better are only suggestions. You can accept or reject them for the next version of your work.
- Incorporate what works for that piece of art.
- Incorporate other lessons into your future works.
- Save what you don’t understand, for you might have more knowledge and insight later in life.
- Throw away any negative emotions from the critique.
Putting It All Together
While critiquing can seem a painful process, especially for those new to it, it is the input an artist needs to improve his quality of work. While expert advice is always welcome, it is the non-experts whose eyes see the clearest for what works with a general audience, and that vision is needed to help the artists achieve their goals.
So, be bloody, brave, and bold enough to at least tell the artist what you see or feel from his piece.
The Gnostic Poet