The Art of Criticism, Part II
Last time, I discussed the different types of criticism and how your methods should vary accordingly. This time, I’ll discuss general rules that you should always follow when critiquing someone else’s work. Thunt recently blogged about this; most of his points are spot-on and I’ll expand on them as I go along.
Throughout this series of posts, I refer to the content creator as the “author” or “writer,” under the assumption that most critiques are of a written work, but the same rules can apply to movies, video games, TV, and even art and music.
Don’t be a bully. I’m putting this first because it’s vastly the most important rule (it also encompasses about half of Thunt’s points). A critic has a position of power over the person whose work he or she is reviewing, and that power can be abused. You can choose to be cruel instead of helpful. Worse yet, you can bury bits of real criticism within a pile of abuse, forcing the author to suffer through the entire thing in the hopes of gleaning something useful from it, and allowing you to maintain the illusion that you’re being a real critic while still mocking someone for your own amusement. If you aren’t sure whether you’re bullying or simply giving a negative review, you’re not ready to be a critic.
Am I saying that you have to be nice to everyone? Yes! There are some mitigating circumstances–popular works can take rougher treatment because they’re already receiving a great deal of positive attention, and different levels of harshness are acceptable between friends–but the principle “don’t be mean” still applies. Yes, readers like mean reviewers, just like kids laughed when bullies picked on you in school, but popularity has never been a moral justification. Hopefully you learned this in preschool.
“You’re telling me to sugarcoat it?” comes the next objection. Honestly, I question the need for the word “sugarcoat” to exist; at the very least it needs an antonym–“acid coat,” maybe–because I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a case of bona fide sugarcoating, but I’ve seen dozens of critiques framed in much harsher terms than necessary. Tell the truth in plain terms appropriate to the author’s level of experience.
Be constructive. Thunt’s “one word comes to mind…” and “it sucks” rules fall under this header. If you follow the previous rule, you’re likely safe here, but remember that good reviews can be as pointless as bad ones. No one learns anything from either “it was good” or “it sucked.” Regardless of the type of critique, the goal is education and improvement: The first type helps improve the author’s current works, the second type helps improve the author’s future works and his or her self-evaluation, and the third type helps improve the readers’ own works and their ability to critique.
Be specific. This is a subset of the above, but I see violations frequently: People giving extremely short, vague reviews even in settings where they know longer, more specific criticism is needed and expected. The response is usually that the reviewer didn’t know what else to say, but if you don’t have anything to say, you shouldn’t critique. I said it before: Critiquing requires real work! Sometimes you may need to take some time and mull over a problem until you figure out exactly what’s wrong and how the author can fix it.
You are violating this rule if your criticism doesn’t give the author any idea what to change. Examples:
- “I hated it.” Absolutely nothing to work with here.
- “It was boring.” More specific than the above, but the author still doesn’t know what to change to make it more interesting. Is the pacing too slow? Are the action scenes poorly described? Do flat characters prevent reader investment?
- “The relationship between these two characters feels unrealistic.” This may sound specific, but the author still doesn’t know what to change to make the relationship feel more realistic. He or she would have to just tweak the relationship at random and hope it was getting better instead of worse.
- “The dialogue feels stilted.” Again, this sounds quite specific, but if the critic didn’t point out specific lines that need work, it leaves the author with no idea what to do aside from rewriting all the dialogue from scratch.
Don’t tell the author to give up. This is primarily a type 1 rule, but can also apply to type 2. Thunt says not to tell someone to stop creating, but I’d expand this and say that you also shouldn’t tell someone to stop working on their current project, no matter how bad it is. You can say that you would never read such a work nor recommend it to anyone or you can lay out that the plot, characters, and world all need a complete overhaul, but you can’t demand that they shelve it because that isn’t your decision to make. When I see this, it always smacks of insecurity–the critic’s fear that the author might be better than him or her, yes, but even more so, the critic’s need to validate him- or herself by exercising absolute veto power and not allowing a work to exist without his or her approval.
Additionally, this kind of ultimatum is virtually never called for. With a few exceptions (one fairy’s quest to watch Wiccans have sex), there aren’t that many legitimately bad story concepts. Execution is everything. Therefore, essentially every story can be salvaged if the author is willing to put in the work.
On the other hand, if you’re working with one author on several works in progress, it’s perfectly legitimate to tell them which one you think they should focus on. For instance, if an author has a habit of starting projects and then abandoning them, a stern order to stick with one and finish it may be just what he or she needs.
Don’t construct narratives. This means that your review shouldn’t talk about the author’s life or how the work was created unless you know what actually happened (and even then, it’s inadvisable). For instance, if a character falls into poverty and it’s portrayed unrealistically, you shouldn’t say “The author has obviously never been poor,” because perhaps he or she has. Likewise, if a work is poorly polished, you shouldn’t say “This was written in a hurry,” because for all you know the author has been slaving over it for years.
There are two reasons to respect this rule. First, it strengthens your review. If you use a narrative to support a point, then if the narrative is proven wrong, the entire point is negated: The author has been poor, therefore the portrayal of poverty is correct. The author may even use it as evidence that you don’t know what you’re talking about and the entire review should therefore be ignored. Second, a work’s quality exists independently of its circumstances of creation. Good works are sometimes written hastily; bad works are sometimes written with great care. Evaluate them based on their own merits.
Recognize unreliable narrators. This is a very specific rule, but I see it often: Amateur critics have a hard time distinguishing between the author’s voice and the character’s voice. This creates all kinds of confusion, from critics assuming that an opinionated character is just a mouthpiece for the player to transcribed dialect being marked as grammar errors.
Now, it’s legitimately difficult to identify unreliable narrators. It’s a common point of discussion throughout literature. I recommend two related guidelines: As above, don’t construct narratives, and give all authors the same leeway you would give master writers. Saying “The author obviously hates rock music because the protagonist keeps complaining about it” would violate both rules: You’re constructing a narrative by pretending to know a fact about the author, and you’re assuming the author has made a clumsy mistake when, if it were written by your favorite writer, you’d instead assume that it was simply a character with an opinion. You may be objecting to the latter guideline–why treat a beginner like an expert?–but the principle is to assume they’re writing correctly unless you have ample evidence that they’ve made a mistake, because the alternative (assuming the author has made a mistake unless there’s ample evidence that it was done on purpose) is just looking for sticks to beat the author with, thus taking us back to the first rule.
Don’t talk about yourself. This rule comes in two flavors. First, don’t pull rank on the author. It doesn’t matter if you’re Roger Ebert or a random LiveJournal user: Your critique is exactly as good as its content. Defend it with specific evidence, not with your credentials. Second, don’t use the review as a springboard to show off your own stuff. Don’t quote your own works (especially not unpublished works), don’t talk about how you’ve written things that are much better, and don’t discuss your personal life. There’s a time and a place for that and it’s elsewhere.
Observe a hierarchy of importance. That is, judge a work most strongly based on the most important parts of writing. I would place themes and ideas first, then plots, characters, and organization, then voice and sentence fluency, then factual accuracy, then conventions. A story based on bad ideas will be a bad story regardless of everything else, while a spelling error is completely superficial and has no influence whatsoever on the quality of the rest of the story.
Don’t use a critique show off your knowledge. Notice how low factual accuracy falls on the above list. Naturally, every story should be factually accurate when applicable, but giving it too much weight is problematic for several reasons. First, critics can use it as an excuse to show off how smart they are, in violation of the previous rule against talking about yourself. The critic may punish mistakes in his or her area of expertise particularly hard in order to make him- or herself look smarter. Second, nobody knows everything, so punishing mistakes you recognize has an inevitable flip side of not penalizing mistakes in areas outside your expertise and leads to uneven judging. This in turn encourages writers to BS critics by writing about topics the critics don’t know about; the critic then ends up reading fewer stories on subjects he or she likes and everyone loses.
Third, I believe this contributes to the flood of bad sci-fi and fantasy. Faced with an inevitable whinefest about details, beginning writers flee to genres where the realism factor doesn’t apply, thus cementing the distinction of sci-fi/fantasy (the “easy” genres) and realistic fiction (the “serious” genre).
Understand the conventions of the genre. Curiously, I most often notice this regarding grammar. Appropriate grammar varies in minor ways between different types of writing: This blog’s casual essay style allows for an occasional conjunction at the beginning of a sentence even though that would be an error in formal essay writing, while fiction writing can get away with well-placed sentence fragments and the like. Conventions vary in other ways, too. For instance, it would be unfair to blame a fantasy story for allowing dragons to fly in violation of the square-cube law.
However, being mindful of convention doesn’t mean it is above reproach. Just because women usually have fewer and less interesting roles in all media doesn’t mean you shouldn’t criticize a story for having a vapid token female.
Finally, know when to stop. Authors are stubborn. Sometimes you’ll point out something egregiously bad and painstakingly explain why it’s ruining the entire work and the author will simply say they’re okay with that. At the end of the day, you can’t force someone to change their work. Don’t make the writer miserable by continuing to bring up an unwanted point, no matter how blatant the problem or how much your suggestion would improve it. Once you’ve made it clear what you think, you’ve done your job, and harping on it further won’t change the author’s mind.
If you follow these rules and put some thought into it, odds are good that your critique will be helpful and constructive and both you and the author will get a great deal out of it. But criticism is a dialogue. Thus, next time, I’ll discuss the art of receiving criticism.