What is Useful Critique?

writing

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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