Critique Expectations: Fly on the Wall Phase

My Motivators

If you have reviewed my write-up on A Generous Approach to Critiques process, you already have a sense of my values as a critique moderator. In my experience the most fruitful critiques are conducted by groups that prioritize respect, affirmation, and generosity.

Every work of art has value – whether it is a draft, a “final final”, something created by an amature, or the work of a master. The act of creating itself is something that should be rewarded with respect and generosity.

You catch more flies with honey, and you create more lifelong artists with encouragement. If an artist feels respected by you, they are far more likely to accept your feedback.

A generous critique process isn’t just a series of compliments. There are ways of encouraging adaptation and improvement that don’t rely on insulting the artist or demeaning their work. In this article I will list out the rules I follow when critiquing creative work. These are also the rules I ask others to follow when I am the critique moderator. 

This list of rules and expectations is specifically for the fly on the wall phase of the critique process. If you are interested in learning more about this phase or the overall critique process, check out the original article.

For every expectation I overview, I will begin by stating a type of comment I ask participants to avoid, why I find that way of commenting ineffective, and what I encourage participants to say instead.

My Expectations Unpacked

Avoid: Statements that begin with “I like” or “I don’t like”

(also general statements like “this is interesting” or “this is boring”)

Statements that begin with “I like” or “I don’t like” often express an opinion with neccesarily providing context, or anything actionable for the artist. Also, it really doesn’t matter whether or not someone likes or dislikes something. What really matters is the reason why someone likes or dislikes something, and that why can always be stated without the like or dislike.

Instead Encourage: Describing the way a work makes you feel

Describing your response to a work of art gives the artist a lot more information than stating your preferences. The more visceral you can be in your description, the better. You do not need to understand why exactly you are feeling a certain way, by simply describing the feeling itself you are telling the artist a lot about the impact their work is having.

Avoid: Labels like Cliche, Cheesy, Cairactature without explanation

I have been in critique groups that ban the use of these words. I do not personally believe in a full ban, as I think it can be useful to understand if something in a work is coming across as cheesy or cliche. A helpful thing about using labels like cliche and cheesy is that they are universally understood. However, they are only useful if they are accompanied by specific identification of what about the work is making it come across as cliche or cheesy.

Instead Encourage: Identifying the part of the work that is cheesy, cliche, or a caricature

For these labels to be useful the commenter must identify which specific element in the work is making it come across as cheesy, or cliche. When the artist understands what part of the work is causing that interpretation, they know what area they should focus on in order to move away from that label if need be. It is also possible the artist was intentionally going for cliche or cheesy, so when a commenter specifies what in the work is causing that reaction, the artist identifies an area where they successfully expressed their intention.

Avoid: Directing Questions at the Artist

(and other direct statements directed at the artists – avoid phrasing that starts with “You”)

The artist is supposed to be a fly in the wall during this phase. Make it easier for them to do this, by refraining from asking questions that are not supposed to respond to during this time.

Instead Encourage: Rhetorical questions about the work itself

Feel free to express your wonders and curiosity – but phrase them in a way that is not requesting a direct response. If the artist does decide your rhetorical question is something they would like to address, they can do so during phase 3: The Artist Holds the Floor.

Avoid: Imposing Personal Preference on the Artist

Everyone has their own tastes and desires when it comes to creative work. It is important for critique participants to remember that our personal preferences may not be relevant to the success of an artist’s work. It can be difficult to distinguish what is simply a personal desire from what is of true benefit for the artist to consider. Participants don’t need to make that distinction themselves, they should just be thoughtful about the way they phrase requests and proposed changes.

Instead Encourage: Describing how the work would benefit from a proposed change

Instead of telling an artist what they should do, describe what the work is doing now, and what would be different about it if a specific change was made. This approach to framing requests helps the artist understand if accepting the proposed change would benefit or improve their vision. We are all entitled to our opinions, and a successful critique relies on expressing those opinions. However, the opinion and intention of the artist is what the whole critique is about. Participants must equip artists with all the information they need to know if an adaptation is supporting their vision, and bringing them close to their goal.

My Expectations Summarized

– Statements that begin with “I like” / “I don’t like”
– General statements such as “This is interesting” / “This is boring”
– Labels without elaboration (Cliche, Cheesy, Derivative, Caricature)
– Directing questions to the artist
– Phrasing comments towards the artist (avoid begin sentences with “You”)
– Imposing personal preference/desires on the artist
– Statements that describe the way a work is making you feel
– Detailed descriptions of your reactions and interpretations
– Identify the specific element in the work that comes across as “cliche”
– Posing rhetorical questions about the work itself
– Speaking as if the artist wasn’t present
– Describing how the work could benefit from a change you are proposing

Featured image is from Ratatouille directed by Brad Bird