critique guidelines and ideas - Jessica Abel

critique guidelines and ideas

What’s a critique?

It’s not being “critical.”

It’s a discussion of a work, its strong points and weak points, with specific focus on how to improve it and move forward.

the basics

Keep it civil: The work posted here is fair game for critique, and while true that critique can sometimes be tough, that doesn’t mean you get to be jerk for no reason.

Be constructive: trashing a work without suggesting how the work can be improved is unproductive, try and give the creator something they can work from.

Explain what you mean: It’s not enough to say “I like this” or “I don’t like this,” tell us WHY. We can’t fix the things that need fixing without specifics.

Both formal and conceptual critique are allowed and encouraged. For example: Let’s say I want to write a very serious 1000-page epic poem about a cat that loves lasagna. We can both critique the form of the poem, such as the meter and rhyme scheme (the formal part), as well as the concept, the idea of whether a 1000-page epic poem about a cat that loves lasagna is a good idea in the first place (note: it’s a very, very good idea.) (And has been done: viz. Garfield.)

guidelines for critique-ers

Lead with the positive. You’ll create a good rapport and support strong discussion if you begin by detailing some elements of the story that worked for you.

Talk about the work, not about the author. Rather than discussing what the author did well or needs to improve, talk about what the story does well or where the story has room for improvement. In other words, rather than saying “Janet needs to improve her characterization,”  say, “I’m missing some characterization in this section of the story. I need to know a bit more.”

Own your own reactions. Use “I” to talk about your reactions to a piece, rather than generalizing them.

Don’t try to argue someone else into sharing your perceptions.Let differences of perception exist. Find it interesting that people see things so differently. Critiquing is about getting true feedback from your peers, not making a case.

Don’t let the big talkers hog the floor.You’ll quickly get bored, even resentful that you can’t get a word in edgewise. And the critique will suffer from limited perspective. Learn to take your space. And if you’re a big talker, try to recognize it and make room for others.

Don’t succumb to groupthink.Hold on to your own impressions and ideas and believe in them. If you’re really convinced by others’ opinions, fine, but even if everyone but you loves something, and you don’t like it, own that, and say so.

Don’t suppress your reactions to genre. Do you hate hard-boiled detective stories? Fine. You can say that, but talk about what didn’t work in the specific hard-boiled story being critiqued. Then talk about what worked. Do you hate superhero comics? OK, same thing. Keep your comments specific to the work at hand.

Realize that, just because you do not like a genre or approach does not mean it’s bad. It just means it’s something you don’t like.

Anything—any structure, any art style, any artistic decision—can work if it works, but anything can also fail if it fails. There are no hard and fast rules.

Give suggestions for revision rather than negative statements. Rather than subjective, overarching statements (e.g. “This part sucked”), try to think of what you might do to fix specific problems you’ve identified.

Remember when doing so, that it’s hard to take suggestions, even when they’re very well intended, so don’t be offended if the author has trouble accepting your offer of help!

Be respectful of others’ backgrounds and perspectives. Be aware that you may have an impact with your statements that you may not intend. You may not even be the intended audience for a piece. Even if you’re not, though, you can play a valuable role as a critiquer because you can point out what background information and context may be missing for someone like you to understand the story, and then the author will be able to decide more intentionally what context to include.

Don’t conflate the character and the author. Make a clear distinction between the work’s narrator/character, and the author. In other words, say “I liked it when the narrator said such and such,” rather than saying “I liked it when you said such and such.” Use this method even with critiquing nonfiction.

Some authors explore topics in their work that are difficult, painful, or loaded. Don’t take an author’s interest in exploring difficult material in writing as an invitation to ask or comment about circumstances the author may have personally experienced. Helpful feedback about difficult content may include:

  • Which emotions does the work elicit or which questions does it raise?
  • Is the work’s style/form consonant with its content?

guidelines for critique-ees

Take notes on your critique. Don’t let this valuable feedback get lost!

Don’t introduce the work. If you have to tell the readers anything about your work, the work does not stand on its own. Avoid introducing your own work defensively: I hate this, or it sucks or I hate the assignment. Simply put your work out there and see what happens.

Listen first. It’s tempting to jump in the minute someone says anything you don’t agree with about your work. But it’s important to let the critiquer have his or her say fully, so you can get a complete set of impressions. If you interrupt, you’ll miss out on some of their fresh reactions. If a critiquer asks you a question, wait until the end of the critique to answer. Learn to just listen (and take some notes), and then let everything you’ve heard simmer for a while.

And know that critiquers are not always right. You’ll find that critiquers and other readers will often have completely contradictory reactions to your work. That’s a good sign that there is an issue with the work, but you won’t necessarily know what that issue is.

Respect your critiquers’ points of view. You may not agree with what people say about your work. That’s OK. You are always right about what the work means to you, but remember this: your critiquers and readers are also right. They only get what they get from the work. And if they’re missing something crucial that you think is totally clear, it obviously isn’t clear enough. Consider making it clearer.

Your job is communication. You are trying to get your idea into someone else’s head. Summarize each scene for yourself—what is the point? What were you trying to do? Are you shouting into the wilderness, or making it happen? Ask yourself: does your least involved colleague, the one who’s most alien to your approach, get what you’re trying to do?

critique ideas (ways to get into it)

“I notice … ”

This is a sort of game in which each person in the group takes turns verbalizing something they see in the work. The verbalization could be something as simple as “I notice there’s a lot of black in the middle of the page”, or as complex as “I notice the main character has some serious issues with her father.” Here’s the trick to this technique: avoid value judgments. In other words, don’t say “I notice that I hate this drawing,” or “ I notice that this is really well-told.” The point is to take the time to look at and read the work, letting the details soak in. The “I notice” technique is a great way to start a critique.

Retell the story

Another way to get a critique started is to retell the story being critiqued. There are several ways to do this.

  • Summarize the story—tell the group a compressed version of what you read. This tells the group (and more importantly, the author) what you see and what you’re missing.
  • Read the story and retell it without looking at the work—what do you remember about it best? What don’t you remember clearly?
  • Retell the group the story as you would have done it.
  • For comics: retell the story while following the action within each panel with your finger, taking as long pointing as you felt when you read it. How long here, how long there? What is your eye drawn to next? Even if you skip to a new panel before you were meant to and then come back, show us that. This is especially useful in examining how well the artist handles reading order.
  • If you find yourself confused by the story, retell it, pointing out where you were confused. Perhaps you can puzzle it out if you give yourself enough time, but think about this: will the average reader bother? Is that really the best use of our time?

Talk about the story:

  • Is there a strong narrative arc?
  • Who is the protagonist and what is his/her motivating desire or need? How is that need addressed?
  • What’s the spark (inciting incident)?
  • How is the story resolved?
  • Did you find the story satisfying? Why or why not?

Talk about the pacing:

  • Did the story fit the length? (i.e., did the story feel cramped or overlong?)
  • Where should the story be compressed or lengthened?

Talk about the art (if any):

  • How appropriate was the art to the story?
  • What panel(s)/scenes resonated the most strongly? Why?
  • Choose a panel/shot that needs work. What would you suggest to fix it?
  • How well integrated are the images and the words? Can they exist apart, or are they interdependent? Look for a place where images take the place of words.

Talk about the writing:

  • Does the dialogue sound like people actually talking?
  • Do the characters have individual, distinctive voices? Are descriptions well chosen?
  • Do they repeat what is visible in the drawing?
  • For visual work: could you get rid of some of the narrative by making the content visible?