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Dishing out the Dirt
How to Give Criticism
by Ellen Million

iving critical reviews can be more frustrating than getting them. You just don't know what to say, you don't know how much is enough advice, you don't know where the line between style and inaccuracy is, and it may seem like every time you try to be helpful, the advice you give is interpreted incorrectly. This is a comprehensive solution to those problems; an all-users guide to giving out the dirt without burying the artist (or writer, in all cases).

What to Say?

The first problem you may have is that you simply don't know where to begin. Maybe you're not an artist, maybe you don't have that perfect witty remark, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't say anything! Leaving even a short comment, or even a criticism, usually makes an artists day.

One good recipe for comments is to find one specific positive point, one specific helpful or critical point, and finish it off with a general feeling about the picture. Example: 'Her hair is really lovely, though I think her hand is a bit small. There's a very peaceful feeling about this picture.' This gives the artist a wealth of input, letting him know a strong point, a part that needs work, and an idea of whether or not they got their overall message across.

If you just don't feel comfortable about pointing out weaknesses, stick with the strong points. Find specific things about the piece that just 'work.' If you are familiar with the artist's work, find things that are unique about this particular piece that you like. Or mention that you love the way she does all of her feet. It can be as helpful to an artist to know what elements of her art are successful as it is to know which elements simply don't work.


Being 'mean' nicely

Your mother's advice still stands: if you can't think of something nice to say, don't say anything. That doesn't mean that you can't point out weaknesses or be critical, but it does mean that you don't have to be cruel to do so.

The 'mood' parts of a comment are the beginning and the end. The beginning sets the tone for the review, and the end is the feeling that the artist goes away with. If you begin a review with a positive comment, and end it with a positive feeling, you can generally cram a lot of advice in the middle without hurting an artist's feelings.

Don't make ultimatums. 'You need to...' is a lot different that 'I think you should...' Adding a little extra bit that makes it clear that it's your opinion will make a huge difference in how the review comes across to the artist. Adding phrases like 'I think,' 'I would,' or 'What if' will keep you from sounding conceited or demanding.

Don't make things personal by such statements as 'You can't shade well.' Refer to the picture itself, saying instead, 'the shading here could use work' or 'this picture needs more shading.'

Helpful pointers are even better than just telling them what's wrong. Saying 'that leg is wrong' is not as useful as saying 'I think that leg is too thin, you can make it thicker without making it look too muscle-y by doing such and so.' The artist you're commenting on will probably be very grateful for the tutelage.


What Not to Say

'Cool!' While positive, also pretty useless in terms of helping the artist improve.

'This sucks.' How does it suck? What can the artist do to improve it?

'Kawaii!' Avoid using slang or words in other languages that the artist may not understand. (Kawaii, incidentally, means 'cute,' but remember that because a word is commonplace in your own vocabulary, it doesn't mean your audience will understand it!)

'I'm going to cry now, you're so good.' Or any 'you make me feel bad about myself' stuff. Your loss of self-confidence (however exaggerated) doesn't do you or the artist any good at all.

Anything with 'u r' or cutesy spelling, including z's at the end of things. Any of this will lower your professionalism in the artist's eyes, often to the level where they may dismiss your ideas as invalid, even though you may have something valuable to offer.

A string of '!!!' or '...' or any other nonsense characters may not have the same meaning to the artist as it has to you. While :) and other characters are fairly widely understood on the Internet, there are plenty of obscure symbols that should be avoided.

Avoid 'sheep' mentality. If seven other people have commented about something, a 'me too' comment is not going to be helpful. Find something new to comment on.

The artist probably doesn't want a long-winded recital about your aunt's dog's chew-toy just because it happens to be the same color as their picture's background. Before you start your comment, ask yourself what you are trying to say, and how it will help the artist.

Note that adding an email or your gallery link will improve the likelihood that the artist will take your comment seriously. Anonymity is often a cloak for someone who doesn't want to take credit for something, and if you don't credit your own opinion, why should they?


Recognizing Style and Opinion

Everyone has a preconceived notion of what an elf or a dragon is supposed to look like. It is difficult to set aside the picture that you may have in your head and judge a picture on its own basis. It is important to recognize the difference between a flaw in a picture, and simply an opposing opinion as to what it should be.

If you're not sure whether your input is a style issue, just say so. A preface like, 'this may be a style issue, but...' will allow the artist, who knows more about what they were trying to accomplish than you do, to judge for themselves, and it will be clear that you aren't trying to dictate their vision.


Taylor Criticism to the Artist

Not every artist is looking for the same thing. Some of them desire very detailed criticism, some of them want suggestions for completing a piece, some of them are looking for praise, and only want positive input. Sometimes, you can figure out what an artist is looking for by reading their picture description. Sometimes it is only detailed in the bio. Sometimes it's not mentioned anywhere, and it's up to you as the commenter to decide how specific, how detailed and how positive you wish to be. It is usually a safe bet to mention just a few key things.

If an artist specifically mentions wanting advice on a particular aspect, make an effort to accommodate them. This doesn't mean you shouldn't comment on other things, or that you always have to stay on that single topic.


Closing Opinions

As you begin your comment, ask yourself what you're trying to accomplish. If you are trying to help the artist improve, supply helpful comments. If you're trying to boost an artist's self-esteem, provide insight to the positive aspects of their work, and tell them specifically what you like. If you're trying to interpret their work, let them know what you see in it. If you're trying to elevate your own self-esteem by flattening theirs, ask yourself why and deal with your problems yourself. If you're responding to a personal attack, step back, and take your complaints to a more appropriate place (like a private message to the offending party).

Before you post your comment, read it. Does it say what you want it to? Could it be read to say something different? Can it be clearer? Your first draft doesn't have to be the final draft. Your comment will be left for everyone to see (pending an artist taking offense and removing it). It is your calling card, and the quality of your comment reflects directly upon yourself.




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