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The Art of Critiquing -- by Will Longaphie

Years before I took up the pen I took up the paintbrush. Back in the days of covered wagons, I attended a high school in Scarborough, Ontario in Canada. It was purported as having one of the best art programs in all of the province. I was sent there from another high school that told my parents that was the best place for my talents, talents I wasn’t aware that I had.

Shortly after that, I began painting in full-on oil and acrylic at home. To put it into perspective when the people of my generation were learning how to drive, I was nested away in my parent’s musty basement painting with my little dog sleeping at my feet. It was his favourite place.

When I would show my paintings at home I would show them to family and friends. They would say, “Oh, I like that,” or “it’s very nice.” The one question I always wanted them to answer was why. Why do you like it? No one could ever answer that question to any level of satisfaction. As a teen that always bothered me.

What I’ve learned since then is they would never be able to answer that question. The reason is that I was a painter asking non-painting people why they liked a painting. Painting was not a part of their world. They didn’t have the vocabulary nor the perspective. I also learned later that many people who do not have an art or art history education are afraid to talk about art. Anyone can tell you if they like a piece of art but very few can tell you why.

Later on, I attended the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. I took both graphic design and fine art. I wasn’t supposed to do that but that’s another post. During my first year painting class, we were informed of what we would be doing that year. This included a set of dates for when our first paintings would be handed in. No one said anything about critique.

A few weeks later we all hauled our artwork of various sizes into class. It was the first time everyone got to see what we were each capable of. Naturally, the air in the class was a little more electric with excitement than usual. We carried our work up to the front of the class and leaned them up against the wall. There were one or two students with far more advanced skills than the rest of us. Those were the paintings that shone brighter than everyone else’s work. 

When the instructor entered and we each got up at the front of the room and talked about what we were trying to achieve in our paintings. The instructor would ask for comments from the other students. Their comments were remarkably revealing and insightful. Everyone was treated with the same respect and courtesy regardless of the quality of the work. Comments made to those students who were struggling were made with compassion and understanding. Sometimes they were offered suggestions on where and how to get more help so that they too could raise their skill level.

The first time I saw that scene unfold before me was very important. It told me that this was a safe place and that everyone in that room was helping everyone else. It taught me to think critically about other people’s work as well as my own. It caused my style to change and my understanding to grow. I became a better artist because of it.

Remember those students whose work was far beyond all the other students? They were the ones who showed us how good an artist we could become. The same is true when you come across another writer whose abilities are more advanced than yours. It should be something to strive for. Recognize their experience and take their suggestions to heart.

Here’s another example of how this works. You’ve all heard of the person who went to visit a foreign country. When you ask him or her how was their trip, they tell you “my French (or German, Spanish etc.) was improving.” It was getting better because they were surrounded by others with an ability or talent that they were interested in. More than that they were critically focussed on it. You can call it immersion, but from my perspective it’s more about the desire to improve.

The parallels between that classroom of burgeoning young artists and this web community of writers cannot be understated. Writers learn by thinking critically about their work and the works they read. Painters learn by thinking critically at their work and the work of other artists. It’s no different. 

Learning to catch errors in storytelling makes you a better writer and a better reader. Suggesting other ways of saying things or deleting unnecessary exposition, dialogue or whatever challenges the writer to see their work beyond what he or she thinks they are capable of. It’s a second, third or fourth pair of eyes looking at your work and there is enormous value in that.

There is a difference between sharing your writing with your friends and sharing your work here. Your friends will always tell you they love your writing. But that’s all they will tell you. This community of writers is a resource for you and they are the ones who can answer that one question: Why do you like it?

Even when you think you have edited the hell out of your piece of writing another pair of eyes will show you what you never saw. Take advantage of it. Embrace it. These are the only people who can constructively explain to you why they like it. More than that, they can tell you how to make it better. 

For your reading pleasure, I would like to add this video from PBS Digital Studios | The Art Assignment: "How to Critique."

I challenge you to watch this video and see the similarities in thinking critically about your work and the work of artists.

Posted by Will Longaphie 15 Feb 2020 at 03:56
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Responses to this blog

Rellrod 15 Feb 2020 at 18:54  
Great example, Will.

One point in particular deserves emphasis. Any random reader (family or otherwise) might be able to give some clue as to what they think. "I like the characters, especially this one." "Why didn't they do this when that happened?" (plot hole) But those of us who think about writing can learn to articulate what they're seeing better than the average person, partly by learning the technical language (as with any type of art or craft). "You've got a dangling participle there." ""This action doesn't seem in character for this person, because . . ." "This chapter loses all the tension you've built up in the last three chapters." When we try to write ourselves, we become especially sensitive to these techniques. "You've got the same problem I realized I did in my last story: . . ."

This is why critiques from other people trying to practice the same art are so useful. The Holy Grail is the crit partner who can read as both a reader and a writer: give you a sense of how something strikes them pre-analytically as a reader, and then help analyze why it does that and, if necessary, how it might be remedied.

Am867056 15 Feb 2020 at 19:20  
I found that CC has been extremely helpful already and I joined in January. My first draft was already complete before I searched out a critiquing website and I had two beta readers: one was my brother, the other a friend of my husband's. Although my brother is a writer as well, I feel like the family aspect kept him from critiquing to the best of his ability and I didn't get much help in how to improve my writing. So it definitely helps to have strangers critique because they are way more objective and aren't worried about being offensive because we all know our writing needs work.

You bring up a great example, Will, and I feel like critiquing others stories has also helped to improve my writing.
Sadielaine 16 Feb 2020 at 17:14  
Well said, Will. Critiquing others' works absolutely benefits the critic as well as the artist. It is easier to be objective when looking at someone else's writing, so if I see a technique that causes me problems as a reader, I can more easily spot that issue in my own writing. As a writer, I know what I intend to say, and I may think I've done a great job of communicating. However, if the reader doesn't get it, I need to try a different approach. Looking critically at other works, I can also appreciate techniques that work well and apply them myself.
Ruthejp13 16 Feb 2020 at 18:51  
I found that instead of making me a better reader, it spoils mediocre reading. When I want to read, I want to read and not critique.
Despargia 16 Feb 2020 at 22:26  
There are critics.
There are writers.
Critics Criticise
Writers write.

There is a place for both.
I can only do one.

Just my opinion and therefore you are free to take it or ignore it, as is your preference.

Alphonso 16 Feb 2020 at 23:42  
Great read! Thank you for expressing what I've been feeling ever since I came here. I was/am so tired of the generic praise that I get from my family and friends. I mean, I do appreciate, but I long for something more. Something that I seem to only be able to get from other writers. Thank you so much for pointing out exactly what that something is!
Carrieo 18 Feb 2020 at 14:59  
I would definitely concur with everything said here. Iíve only recently joined CC and really hope it will help me with my writing. I already know that two of my biggest weaknesses are telling, not showing, and also dialogue - probably because Iím not a big talker myself! Anyway, just wanted to add, Iíve been advance reading with occasional amateur editing for other established author for a few years. This has helped me so much, seeing the good and the bad in their writing certainly helps identify it in my own. Canít wait to be a bit more active here now
Jongoff 23 Feb 2020 at 04:35  
The hardest reader to find, and the most valuable, is one who gives honest feedback. Treasure them.
Gfrank 26 Feb 2020 at 03:52  
Excellent description of the reason for this website and the community here. I love it.

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