How to Critique Authors and Artists
by Jenna Van Vleet
Have you ever seen a harsh comment, posted on an online forum, that makes you wince? Maybe it is for a movie, a song, a book, or a piece of art. You know what I’m talking about.
Step with me into the artist’s seat. When we create something, it is terribly precious to us. We toil over it, wrestle with ideas to make it better, polish it down until it gleams in our eyes. Then we share it with the world. It’s like pushing your child into traffic. There goes the thing most precious to us, the thing we’ve spent years and years refining, the best thing we’ve ever created. You may not think so, but we sure do. As we wait for the critiques of others, we sit on the curb and watch in horror as our beloved creation steps further into the street.
We have lost sight of tact in this world of technology. Without accountability, we can insult someone across the world without consequences. It is so easy to post a cruel message and expect no repercussion.
I spent seven years working on my novel series, and only recently pushed them into traffic. My stories are so precious to me, but I had to let them go, had to let my story be told. There went the world I fabricated, the characters that are practically kin to me, those I stayed up late at night with and plotted. They are so real, that when people ask what is going to happen next in the unfinished last book, I have to reply “I don’t know, Gabriel hasn’t decided yet.”
So understand from my perspective when I say we artists find it inexplicably painful when people rip into our babies. No one deserves to be flogged over the internet. Artists do an incredibly brave thing by releasing their creations to the masses. Some of them are just learning to draw and seeking approval. Some are testing their vocal chords and want someone to tell them they’re beautiful. Some write a poem in their darkest moment and are searching for someone to accept them.
We artists try to have armor-thick skin, but sometimes comments get through our chain-mail. We sit and wonder why we even bothered creating something, though we know in our core it is the foundation of our life. We MUST create, or we are nothing.
Remember to be kind when you post a comment—and this is in everything. We cannot hold you accountable for your words, so you have to do it yourself like an adult. If you didn’t like the book you read then don’t comment, or at least post something that isn’t going to make the author question their purpose in living. Remember those stars or thumbs we use to rate things are cutting as well. If you’re going to rate something low just because you didn’t like a part of it, reconsider. You may be messing with someone’s livelihood.
I have pretty thick skin—I have to—but if you’re going to be mean for mean’s sake, keep it to yourself. There are a lot of precious artists with much thinner skin than I.
Constructive criticism is not a lost art. I find the best way to structure a critique is: positive, negative, positive. Or, always end on a positive. “I loved the bright imagery in the land of Unicornia. I thought the character of Captain Fluffypants needed more depth as I couldn’t connect with him. However, the twist at the end was excellent.” Was that so hard? OMG, no it wasn’t.
When giving a negative critique, explain why. If you know how to better lay watercolor, give examples of how it can be done better. If someone used accept instead of except, explain the difference and when it’s used. Teach. Don’t beat down because you have words to use. “I hate it and want to firebomb your face” isn’t going to help anyone. We artists know we’re going to get bad reviews and ratings because our work won’t speak to everyone, but explain why you didn’t like it. Don’t tell us how you’d do it; it’s not your artwork. We made it for us.
So, dear reader, remember when you write comments there is a person just as lovely as you on the receiving end. Be honest, but tactful. Gentle, but truthful. If you can’t say anything nice, shut up. And remember, most importantly, never, ever, ever actually push children into traffic.