Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Elephant dung and the art of critique.

During a rehearsal of the opera Aida, an elephant dropped a large, steaming pile of dung on the stage. Conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham (known as much for his wit as for his musical genius), remarked, “Its manners are abominable, but what a critic!”

Dumping a ‘load of dung’ on somebody’s artistic endeavor seems to be almost de rigueur these days. You only have to open the arts page of your local newspaper or tune into the post-Oscars commentary on red carpet fashions to find scathing remarks about somebody’s creative efforts. (I’m reminded of Rex Reed and the late Joan Rivers, here.) 

Whether the artistic endeavor be a book, a design, a piece of music, art or a poem, having your work slammed by a complete stranger has to be hurtful. While most of us creatives can hide our chagrin and put a brave face on it, few of us can walk away feeling nothing at all. Iris Murdoch’s blithe statement, “A bad review is not nearly as important as whether or not it’s raining in Patagonia,” may be a balm for some bruised egos, after the fact, but bad reviews can break even the most resilient among us, shatter dreams and smother talent before it even has a chance to develop.  

Criticism is always negative and almost always, wholly subjective. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines it as: ‘The action or process of indicating the fault or faults of somebody or something, or one’s disapproval of somebody or something.’ (After all, if it was positive, we’d call it praise and if it was indifferent, we’d likely refer to it as commentary.) Harsh criticism, however, which finds only fault, seldom benefits anyone except perhaps, the person giving it. All too often, it seems, I find critics using their rhetoric as nothing more than a platform for their own (supposed) virtuosity. 

But having said that, I should add, that not all critics focus on what’s wrong with the creative offering. By far, the majority present the good along with the bad and try to make their feedback as balanced as possible. This is not criticism, it’s critique.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines critique as: ‘the art of criticism.’ And that’s the nub – giving balanced feedback is an art. Yes, it may well be subjective but the word critique implies (to me, anyway) that a certain amount of analytical thought lies behind critic’s response – along with, perhaps, a careful choice of words.   

Never is this more important than when one has been asked to critique someone’s work. And here I’m referring to writing, since that’s the business I’m in. The way I see it, being asked to critique a piece of writing is an honor, not something to be taken lightly. You’re being entrusted with a little part of something dear to that person and it deserves the best you can do.

If you believe in nurturing talent and helping people develop and improve their craft, here’s a simple 4-step process for giving balanced and constructive critique. I call it the Hamburger Method.  


The top bun
Begin by pointing out those positive aspects of the piece that you liked and that you think worked really well. 

The meat in the middle
Select one or two areas (three at the most) that the writer could improve on. If there are many faults with the piece, don’t try to list them all – this can be very disheartening, not to mention confusing, for many writers. If you’re going to point out problem areas, be sure to explain why they are problematic and offer possible solutions. It doesn’t help anyone to hear about what’s not working in their writing if they aren’t shown why it doesn’t work and what they might do to fix it. 

The bottom bun
This is where you point out what strengths the writer has shown and how he/she can possibly use those strengths to correct or improve on the weaker areas. Don’t assume that every writer can see their own strengths. We can’t. It can be extremely helpful, not to mention encouraging, to have those strengths pointed out.
The sauce
This is your opportunity to sum up the positive aspects of the piece and to say what you liked about it, as a whole. It’s the time to make an encouraging statement. There’s no need to get soppy or wax lyrical about a piece of writing. Empty flattery seldom fools anyone. If you’re going to use banal generalizations – like the word ‘nice’ – at least explain what you mean by that. A final statement can be simple: ‘What I especially liked about it was…. and I hope to see more of your work.’ 

And finally, I’ll leave you with this thought: If you cannot find anything positive to say about someone's creative effort, the fault does not lie with that person.

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  1. Critique is definitely an art form.

    My system differs from yours somewhat. I expect crit to be inherently negative, but it shouldn't be damaging.

    I usually try to give critique line-by-line, so it's a series of suggestions for how to make their story better. That way, they can decide what fits and what doesn't. I never expect my vision to be the same as theirs. And if there's any conflict, I tell people to go with their original gut feeling. It's THEIR story. I'm trying to make it better.

    I do give the odd compliment, but the whole thing for me is very dispassionate. Comma here, that adverb doesn't add, unnecessary filter, etc. It's basically the same thought process that goes into my own editing.

    But I have read the kind of critique you're talking about. It seems like the critic is taking pride in being superior to the author.

    I basically disregard critiques like that. They're not meant to help, and really, there's not enough time to waste on destructive people when you don't have to. :)

  2. Thanks for your comments, Cathleen. And yes, giving good critique certainly requires some skill.

    I agree that a critique being seen as 'inherently negative' is a common perception but I don't believe it should be. A critique, as I see it, shouldn't just be about what's wrong with the work - it should equally highlight what's right, what works well. That's balanced feedback.

    I've seen many line-by-line critiques that pick out every mistake, which is fine, that's what a line-by-line should do, but when the writer has used a good turn of phrase or or a pleasing piece of narrative, no positive comment is made about it.

    I think giving balanced feedback is the most helpful form of critique. It points out the problem areas (and heaven knows I've needed plenty of that) but it also encourages one to try harder and do better.

    But maybe I'm too soft on writers. What do you think?

  3. I like the "hamburger method", Gail. Having recently exposed myself to critique (by today, I only needed a bit of salve on the sting), the balanced feedback approach sounds very good. Even with a heavily flawed presentation, there is surely some positive pieces of the work. It seems to me that when no positive is noted, your creation could've been critiqued by an automated system. I think I would be in line with most authors. When we request a critique, we try to be prepared for honest and unflinching suggestions of errors and need for improvement. We also wish for the human empathy of a fellow writer, who will search for some admirable quality and note it. Have enjoyed meeting you. JO

  4. Hi Jo. I couldn't agree with you more. It's that human empathy and the desire to help that can make all the difference.

    Over the years, I've spoken to many actors, writers and artists and they all agree that the stinging 'critique' lingers far longer in the mind than any words of praise. I can remember the first time I put a piece of writing up for critique. It got blasted. The first response to my somewhat wordy piece was, 'What? Are we back in English class again?' It went downhill from there. But I can't remember any of the positive remarks that were made. I think there might have been one or two, possibly just enough to stop me throwing the word processor out the window and taking up needlepoint. LOL!

    You're a great writer, Jo. I've enjoyed meeting you, too.