Cycle 4.1 Art of Critique


EcoArts Walk, Lake County, N. California. Reflections.

by Janet  Grace  Riehl

I once cried during a critique.

It was an MFA upper-level course in visual storytelling taught by two eminent photographers. I had petitioned to get into the course, arguing that my life experience fulfilled the lower-level entry requirement. I’d gotten in, participated, and then blown it by crying during a critique of my work. Before the next class the instructors ambushed me at the top of the stairs and strongly suggested, to the point where I felt threatened, that I drop the course.

To sit back and observe critique as a sociologist, anthropologist, or psychologist can be an entertaining pastime—as long as it’s not your own work on the table. I’m surprised there aren’t plays, comic strips, and situation comedies based on the stereotypical types that surface during critique: the Ding-Bat, the Sonorous Voice of God, the Professor, the Meanie, the Raconteur.

Unfortunately, critique—peer or professional—is rife with possibility for misuse, misunderstanding, and misery. In the very worst situations there can be a scoring of points that turns the critique into a virtual blood sport. The writer’s work takes backseat to the critiquer’s social and personal agendas. Small wonder that some writers dread the very word.

Critique. For myself, I dreaded it. I hated it. I learned from it.

Fortunately, after the disastrous experience in the photography class, I had the joy of encountering a teacher, Betsy Davids, who fully understood the meaning of critique and its purpose. She regarded critique as a form of appreciation, a time of joining with the piece and giving back to the artist who created it.

During critique she grew quiet and made the piece the object of contemplation. She then took the class on a tour of what she saw and how she responded to it. She responded to each element—texture, color, shape—and how it affected her feelings and body. Her response to our artwork was fully considered and intimate.

Betsy was there for us, not to make herself more grand. She was there to help us and to know our art and art making more fully. If there were goofs, gaps, or gaffes in our work, she knew how to point these out gently. Her responses inspired us to go back to the work and try to improve it.

Although Betsy was critiquing visual art, her process would have been equally beneficial for writing. Good critique focuses on the writing—not the writer, not the critiquer. Its purpose is to help the writer make her own work stronger. Ideally, there’s no place for chest thumping or ego massaging or denigration of the writer such as in the experience I related above.

Oh, and how did that incident turn out? I’m proud to say that I held my ground with the two professors, stayed on in the course, and earned an “A.”

In our next post (4.2) we’ll talk about how a group can best benefit individual writers.


Pose questions about practical creativity; give ideas for future cycle themes; and join in the dialog in the comment section below.

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9 responses to “Cycle 4.1 Art of Critique

  1. Critique is important to anyone whose art is meant to share with others, so we need to learn how to accept it with open ears and strong heart – how else can we learn? There is no excuse for people who tear others down; there are also people who go on the attack if anyone dares to think their work less than perfect.

  2. I enjoyed reading this article and, for the most part, agree with you. Yet I also agree with Linda Austin’s comment (above). On the other side of the cruel type of critique you describe experiencing is what I typically experience in writers groups—particularly those that are comprised of women: no critique.
    I have thirsted for some real, “here’s how you can improve your work” kind of critique, but more typically receive only “I enjoyed reading your story” kinds of comments.
    There is certainly a place for encouragement, especially when working with a group of new writers. Heck, there’s *always* a place for encouragement. My #1 rule when critiquing a piece is to start with what I really like about it. I can always find something. But I also believe that when we are so afraid to hurt others’ feelings that we don’t tell the hard truth along with the soft truth, we aren’t helping each other become better writers.
    I liked your example of Betsy; she gave time for thoughtful critique, not just her reaction, and pointed out those gaffes and errors—gently—so that the artist could improve her work.
    This is exactly the kind of critique I hope we lifestory writers will cultivate with one another.

  3. Dear Linda and Amber,
    Thanks for the dialogue. This is the keynote post for a cycle of three posts on the theme of critique.
    This post is also a summary of a much longer essay. Here’s a section of that essay that goes more deeply into the meaning of critique.
    Critique and the act of giving a critique are widely misunderstood. The American Heritage Dictionary gives the first definition as: “A critical review or commentary, especially one dealing with a literary or other artistic work.” And, the third definition as: “The art of criticism.”
    What is this art? Close at hand in the dictionary is the word “criterion” which is said to be “a standard, rule, or test on which a judgment or decision can be based.” This word and “critique” and “criticism” all come from Greek origins. Here, the root Greek work, krites is a judge or umpire and krinein means “to separate, choose.” I feel these are the matters at the heart of critique.
    Under “critic” we have as the first meaning “One who forms and expresses judgments of the merits and faults of anything, and second meaning, “A specialist in the explication and judgment of literary or artistic works.” Often, during critique, there is at least one person who takes upon themselves the third meaning of critic, “A person who finds fault; a severe judge.”
    The fourth meaning is marked obsolete, but to my mind, is more to the point: “A critique, from Latin criticus, “from the adjective, decisive, from the Greek kritikos, able to discern.” Discernment is the faculty that is being trained during critique—both for those commenting and the person whose work is being commented upon.
    NEXT TWO POSTS will cover the responsibilities of both the group and the individual being critiqed…plus some tools.
    Our next, and sixth cycle on the creative process will move to the art of collaboration in which we’ll discuss the role of writing buddies and writing partners.

    Also, take a gander at the illustrative photo with the mirror/picture frame nestled in the tree boughs…reflection, framed.

  5. Janet, like Linda and Amber, I very much enjoyed your post and feel it will be helpful for writers and readers. I was fortunate that my poetry writing professor made it clear before we embarked on peer critiques that it was not about tearing each other down, but helping each other improve.
    However, I think my skills of evaluation and critiquing really improved after joining Toastmasters. When people are deathly afraid of public speaking, you have to ensure that you provide a supportive, friendly environment for them. Toastmasters has brochures, lessons, and even contests about evaluating speakers. I have gone on to use those very same lessons with my own students when evaluating their papers or with my writer friends.
    I’m looking forward to the next posts as well.

  6. Thanks for getting me reflecting on my personal experience, Janet!
    My first experience with critique in an photography/art class was terrible as well. So much I switched from Art to be an Anthropology major! Not sure I could have ever fit the commercial artist mold at the time.
    However, I now work pretty much exclusively on a development team for instructional media. There is certainly an art to critique, but without it, our final product would suffer. What I do when I ask for “feedback” is to be clear, that I am looking for personal reaction-usually as a learner, not global final authority on the product. Unless you are the team’s graphic artist, I don’t want your opinion on the color of the font! I do want your comments like “I am colorblind and the orange is hard to see.” I almost coach the people who trial our products.
    In my field we have classifications of assessment of works- is this formative feedback, summative feedback? blah, blah, blah.
    So this concept of ‘what is the purpose of the feedback?’ is very detailed and is valued by quality-conscious professionals in my field.
    Coming back to the critique I have received on my writing in Story Circle and why I value it is…I get authentic, personal reaction to my writing. Perhaps those who don’t “get it” don’t speak up. However I get a sense of my audience and how my message touches the hearts of some and not others.
    When I am serious about the craft of writing and to want to learn to expand what I do, I seek a mentor relationship who can give me the advice I need to explore beyond my frontier and advance my skills.
    Those folks are generally skilled in providing ‘constructive criticism’, as we used to call it.
    I think teaching children “cooperative learning” skills that promote collaboration and expression of personal/professional feedback in a productive way is lacking in our children’s education.
    Oh, and if I am giving critique, I always couch it in my personal perspective that “what would make it clearer for me or I would like to hear more about x” That all I am giving is a personal reaction…that is subjective and individual.
    It goes back to that voice of authority, doesn’t it? I like the taxonomy of authoritative voices in peer critique your suggest…The Omnipotent Being, etc. That really wasn’t peer critique you mention first but the “teacher”! “All laud the mighty professor”
    The reason I am so into Digital Storytelling for teachers is that teachers so often skirt the personal point of view…their authority is 3rd person- the omnipotent “Research says….”
    Good stuff to make me think.

  7. Morgan, good idea about the value of Toastmasters and how that transfers over to positive group learning.
    Martha, I’m fascinated by your ideas about taxonomies of voices…and differing types of critique for different stages in the process. This seems so useful and precise. Gosh, I’d really like to know more about this.

  8. I enjoyed this post. I participated in a small, creative writers’ workshop some years ago. It was the first time I ever read anything I’d written to others, let alone to others for feedback. The critiquing style used made it comfortable: be positive, appreciate what you can, be supportive. With manuscripts more commentary was given. Still, it was positive, in the vein of: ‘can you tell me more about _____’ rather than, ‘this section makes no sense to me’. Or, ‘Can you clarify such and such?’ It made it safe to explore. I don’t want a sugar coating, but respectful honesty works wonders. On the other hand, if an agent is responding to a ms or query, I doubt s/he would take the time to be that nice. But maybe I’m wrong.

  9. Mary…I like the phrase “made it safe to explore.” Also: “respectful honesty.”
    Critique groups vary in purpose. Some steele you for that tough context of the publishing world. And, that’s good, too if that’s what you need.

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