What is Useful Critique?


One thing Katie and I have in common is that we both went to art school. Not the same place, or the same time; she went to the Herron School of Art and Design, I went to The Kubert School. There are some experiences that are universal, though. One of those is learning how to give and receive useful critique.

A lot of what bothers me about internet-driven modern culture is that people don’t know what critique is. They think it’s a license to be as rude as they feel like. It’s somehow become synonymous with shoot-from-the-hip opinion, rather than thoughtful and considered analysis. I could do a deep dive into why I think this is, but “instant gratification culture” and “a debauched definition of the freedom of speech” sums it up.

While a certain amount of opinion will always slip in, critique ought to be objective. That means that the person providing the feedback has to understand the standards for the thing they’re commenting on. If there are technical specification, they need to know what those are. When a creator is attempting to mimic a style, they need to be familiar with that style. This is why in art school, artists critique each other. It’s how writer’s groups work. It’s how we learn not only how to give and receive critique, but to look at our own work objectively.

What is Useful Critique?

The creator’s intention factors into it, so they can be critiqued on how well as message did or didn’t land. This will be a little more subjective, but it does require you to understand a lot about communication. You have to be able to explain why something worked for you, and why it didn’t.

Which leads to the next point: a useful critique has to give people information they can use. This brings us to the immature comments on the internet. Saying something is crap, or pointing out the creator’s ideological intentions, is meaningless. You need to state, objectively, why something is crap. Being dismissive because you disagree with the point the creator is trying to make isn’t useful; it doesn’t express why their message doesn’t land with you, or how they could have better expressed that idea.

The main reason that internet comments will never be useful critique, however, is that commenters almost never have any skin in the game. If someone leaves a snarky remark, nasty comment, or even a bad review, they’re rarely in a position where you can turn around and slam something they’ve created. When you learn how to give critique, you know you can only give as much as you’re willing to get. If you’re gentle and kind in your delivery, most people will treat you in kind. When you’re harsh and nasty, you’ll get that turned back at you. The feedback still needs to be objective and useful, but when it’s packaged in a form that’s palatable it’s more likely to be heard.

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Writing and Alcohol

People assume that because I am a writer, I’m also a heavy drinker. Most of them aren’t writers. When I tell people that I don’t drink, they then assume that I’m in a 12-step program. That’s not meant as shade on people who are sober. Good on you. I’m not moralizing about alcohol, either, and have no problems with people who drink responsibly. It’s just weird that people have these stereotypes in their heads about writing and alcohol. Drinking is so normative in society as a whole, and thanks to authors like Hemingway and Faulkner, somehow tied to the craft of writing.

When I posted this on Twitter, it blew up. I was amazed at the number of authors who, like me, don’t drink at all. A lot of them, like me, have health issues exacerbated by alcohol. Many just don’t like the taste, the way it makes them feel, or the whole bar/party/intoxicant culture. Most don’t understand how anyone can be functional, let alone creative, while drunk.

Writing and Alcohol

I have to wonder how much of this goes hand-in-hand with the myth that one must suffer for art. The romantic notion of the tortured genius in full effect. People with substance abuse issues are clearly suffering. If they’re not drinking to ease the pain, the effects of alcohol on their health and behavior will bring them pain eventually. The association of drinking with having fun has to tie into that as well.

The truth is that writers are more likely to be drinking coffee or tea. It’s pretty evenly divided, based on responses to that tweet, with coffee holding a slight lead. Stimulants, rather than depressants, are more conducive the writing process. While too much of anything is bad for you, consuming copious amounts of caffeine isn’t exactly self-destructive. That’s not as colorful an image as the disheveled author slowly killing himself to create his masterpiece, but is that really a bad thing?

On Being a Hack Writer

“Hack” is a derogatory term for a writer that cranks out a lot of content in a short period of time. The assumption is that the quality suffers in the pursuit of quantity. In fiction, hack writers are associated with pulp magazines and novels. Because those markets paid by the word, and in many cases still do, the more work they could churn out, the more money they could make.

I have been called a hack. It doesn’t offend me, and I embrace it. The people who throw that term around as if it’s the real author’s equivalent of “the N word” are the same people complaining that they can’t make a living with their writing. They’ve spent years carefully crafting their novel, or developing their game, or nurturing their screenplay. Every word choice is the result of their blood, toil, tears, and sweat. I string some words together, throw them out the door, and pay the rent.

A lot of the people who call me a hack also rail against having gatekeepers. They think that quality control should apply to my work, but not theirs. What they’re really after is personal validation. They want a way to keep their club exclusive, as long as they’re already in the club. I don’t want to break it to them that early in their careers Beckett, Chekov, and Faulkner were all low-paid high-volume hacks. Don’t even get my started on that populist scribbler, William Shakespeare.

On Being a Hack Writer

What I’d like to argue is to judge work on its own merits, not how it was produced. If you read a novel and enjoy it, what does it matter if it was written over six weeks or six years? When you kill a couple of hours with laughs, thrills, and jumps scares at a movie, why do you care if it took three days or three months to film it? Having fun playing a game doesn’t relay on the number of people-hours put into creating it.

Would I love it if I could spend as much time as I wanted on any given project? Making it the best that it could possibly be? Of course I would. Can I afford to do that now? No, I have bills to pay. The market being what it is, that means I need to churn. Not everyone can do what I do. I’ll take a roof over my head and food in my belly over awards and critical praise any day of the week.

Asimov, Bradbury, and Creative Work

Something I’ve always been fascinated with is how other people do creative work. It doesn’t matter to me if they do the same kind of work that I do. This is why I love documentaries about artists, actors, and even chefs. The urge to make things is universal, no matter what medium you use.

My wife Katie is an artist and an academic, and has written papers on the creative process. She shares my fascination with how people draw from a variety of influences to develop their own style, and their own unique work habits. While we each have our own list of people that have shaped us creatively, two of the influences we have in common are Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. The catch is that I picked up the Bradbury notes from her, and she got the Asimov bits from me.

Asimov Style Work

This is based on something I remember reading many, many years ago. It was likely in an issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Asimov was a prolific writer, writing and editing over 500 books in his lifetime. He used typewriters, even though computers and word processors were available to him. He would have several set up in his workspace, each for a different project. When he hit a block on one piece, he would slide over to the next typewriter and pick up on that. If that one was finished, or he needed to ruminate on it before continuing, he’d shift to the next typewriter. By the time he got back to the first one, he’d be ready to work on it again and pick up where he left off.

Applying Asimov Style

I always have several projects going at once. With my wondrous laptop, I don’t even have to move. When I get stuck, I can close or minimize one file and switch to another. Because I am a planner and compulsive outliner, it’s easy to find other things to do on other projects. The project with the closest deadline always takes precedence, of course, but working on something that’s not due until the far future is better than wasting time. The advantage, for me, is that when it is time to work on another project, a good portion of the work has already been done.

What Katie has taken from this is using downtime to begin planning the next project. While she’s waiting for paint to dry or adhesive to set on one piece of art, she can be sketching out a future piece. She can be measuring and cutting materials, so things are ready to go when she starts. There’s always something she can be working on, even if she’s not ready to dive into the next piece.

Bradbury Style Work

Katie has long been a fan of Ray Bradbury. There’s an essay in one of his books where he talks about his creative process, and it involves pointedly ignoring an idea. According to Katie, he calls it “provoking the latent beast”. As he worked on other projects, ignoring the idea, the details would start to work themselves out. In the back of his mind he’d be adding to it, figuring out the shape of it. When he could no longer ignore it, he’d sit down to write it and the story would come pouring out.

Applying Bradbury Style

She avoids doing sketches for a long as she can. By the time she does put pencil to paper to capture ideas, she already has a clear picture in her head of what it looks like. The same goes for making prototypes. Instead of making several test runs to see how materials and colors work together, or how separate pieces can be connected, she lets the thought experiments run in her head. By the time she puts together a test piece she’s already sorted out things that probably wouldn’t work, and the best ideas to try out.

I’ve found that elements of this have crept into my Asimov style work habits. While I’m working on one project, I’ll have a idea that fits into another. By the time I need to switch, I have something that has to be added to another project. It might be some word count, an idea that needs to be captured before I forget it, or items to add to the outline.

Apply This to Your Creative Work

My takeaway from all of this is that it’s possible to always be working on something. At the same time, allow some ideas to percolate in your head for a while before you dive into them. The processes are complimentary, even though they seem contradictory. You don’t waste any time and can be prolific. You’re also able to present the best possibly work because you’ve had a chance to woolgather and allow the concept to become more fully formed before to move to execute it. It might not work for everyone, but it’s been working well for the two of us.

Creative Work Habits are Fascinating

One of the things I miss about doing the podcast are the episodes where Katie and I just talk about creativity. We still have those conversations, but we don’t get to share them. They weren’t the most popular episodes, but if we ever did a podcast again I think we’d center it on that topic. She’s an artist, I’m a writer, and it’s amazing how much overlap there is in our influences. Two of the people whose work habits we’ve both absorbed into our own process are Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. They’re the subject of today’s new blog post over on my Patreon.

We watch a lot of documentaries, and the bulk of those are about creative people. Artists, architects, and even chefs. The drive to make things seems universal to me, regardless of the medium a person is working in. Even shows like Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee can give us a peek into the minds of some amazingly imaginitive and funny people. Jerry might be problematic at times, as are some of his guests, but when you get insight into how their minds work it’s always interesting.

Creative Work Habits are Fascinating

As I find my rhythm for this iteration of the blog, I suspect that looking at other peoples’ creative work habits will become something of a running theme. It overlaps with almost all of the categories I’ve chosen to write about. It’s certainly a way to not make everything about me all of the time. In looking for a through line in my past blogging habits, I find that I’ve spent a lot of time sharing what I do, and the tips and tricks I’ve lifted from other people. Might as well make it a mood.