Do No Harm
How to Give a Helpful Critique
in a symbiotic relationship with our critique group members.
You critique my work, I'll critique yours — and in
turn, we both learn more about our own work and ourselves.
But how does a group stay on track and avoid slipping into
mushy comments or hurt feelings? Introducing the backbone
of every critique group; a good, strong critique.
One critique does not fit all. Tailor your
comments to your critiquee's situation, skill-level,
and style. It helps to ask if there are specific items you
should focus on. One advantage of an established group—you
are already familiar with each member and her abilities.
And what if you perceive that the
critiquee's ability is higher than yours? Guess what?
We all need to work on something and we all can improve. Don't
be intimidated. This person wants other opinions—your
opinions. Everyone has something to learn and something to
Examine the work
as a whole. What are you opinions about overall themes,
color, composition, etc? How are the words and the images
working together and playing off each other? Dig down a bit
and look at smaller details—the way a hand is drawn,
the structure of a sentence.
Note everything that is beautiful and interesting.
Also note anything that makes you stop and say, "huh?"
Those "huh?" elements
are the heart of your critique.
Note: Consider reading others'
comments only after you've almost finished your own.
This will allow you to form your own pristine opinions of
the piece. Feel free to add any additional reactions to your
crit after you've read the others but don't hesitate
to make a comment that someone else has already touched upon.
The more times the critiquee hears the same comment, the harder
she will look at that section for revision.
Hold the Mayo:
The Sandwich Critique
Time to organize your observations
into a digestible form. At Yellapalooza, we try to use the
"Sandwich Critique." Positive/negative/positive.
First, point out all the things you feel
are working particularly well, all those beautiful, interesting
things. Explain what you like and why. Not only will this
foster trust, it will show the critiquee that you understand
and appreciate what she's trying to accomplish.
Then list the "huh?" aspects
you discovered. You don't have to tap dance around the
truth, just present your criticism in a professional manner
by using specific, constructive words. (ex. The meter in the
first stanza could be stronger.) Avoid general, negative comments
(ex. The rhyme in this story is wrong) which only succeed
in putting the critiquee on the defensive, effectively negating
anything else you have to say.
Back yourself up by describing why you think
a certain item isn't working and how it might be strengthened.
(ex. The first and third line should have the same number
of beats and emphasis, as well as a true rhyme.) Offering
suggestions isn't "redoing" the work for
the critiquee; you are simply explaining your comment in greater
Whatever you do, don't be "nice"
and skip this important section. The critiquee wants/needs
to hear that some areas could use more attention. After all,
isn't that why we're in a critique group in the
Lastly, sew your critique up with an encouraging
finish. End with positive, high-level comments about the work
as a whole. The "negative" heart of the crit is
nestled between the positive, protective ribs.
Note: if you can't come
up with any positive comments, either don't critique
this piece or contact your moderator for advice. If you're
critiquing the moderator, run!
Your comments should be offered freely, with affection
and respect. Once given, let them go. It's the recipient's
decision to take or leave them. If she asks questions about
your comments, she isn't challenging you; she just wants
to understand you better. And if the critiquee does seem to
take your constructive criticism badly, that's her issue.
You've followed the "sandwich" critique
method and communicated professionally; you've done
While a good, in-depth critique can
take a little time out of your day, don't think of it
as wasted. It will come back to you tenfold. Not only will
you get a robust critique from this person when your time
comes, you'll improve your own skills—observation,
communication, and problem solving. Plus, you get the warm
fuzzies knowing that you helped a fellow artist one step further
down the path of success.
||Try Not To...
- Start and end with something positive
- Say what you like and why
- Say what you don't like and why
- Be polite and professional
- Give only positive feedback
- Offer harsh criticism without constructive suggestions
- Use personal attacks