How To Get An Honest Critique Of Your Work

Whether you are painting, writing poetry or prose, making music, sculpting or whatever… you’ve finished your latest piece so you’re moving to that tricky phase of getting comments and opinions from your friends. And, most of the times, you know you are just wasting time. They’re your friends, so they are going to like it, and even if they don’t they will say they do. What’s the use of it? But you need some critique, so you’ll ask them anyway. How to make them being honest and useful instead of flattering?

It’s all about what you ask and how you state the question. If you ask a friend how do they like it, then they probably won’t give you anything useful. Unless by useful you mean flattering and telling you’re the best. But what’s that useful for? It won’t make you any better to hear that your friends like you. You want to hear what is bad and wrong about what you just did, right? Then you can go back and maybe correct it. Or you can learn for the next time. That’s the road to becoming really good, if not the best.

So ask it that way. Don’t ask how do they like it or what do they think. Don’t ask them to be honest with you, they’ll just interpret that as a call to lie more persuasively. Ask them what they don’t like, what is bad and wrong. Ask them to be harsh and brutal! And don’t just say it. Mean it, honestly. Be sure that your friend takes the message. Don’t go around all happy about the work you have done.

Trick that usually works for me is showing the piece and telling that something’s wrong with it I just can’t point the finger to the problem. And ask for help.

Art Critique

photo by herval

Do that when you are in the mood to destroy the piece yourself. Don’t ask for the opinions right after you have finished the piece. You’re probably tired and too attached to it. Get some sleep. Go do something else. Give your brain some chance of clearing up. You’ll have a better look on your work and will be more acceptable to the critique. There is no point of hearing what’s bad about your work while you’re still swimming in the waters of inspiration.

Don’t accept any flattering and positive critique before you get the negative one. Just shook your head, cut their sentence in half and move them back to finding your weak spots. Encourage them when they start bringing up what they think is bad. Once they see you are OK with their opinion and not just asking for a bit of friendly praise, they’ll start feeling free to communicate it to you.

Take a piece of paper and write it all down. Right there, while you’re talking with a friend. Don’t leave it for later. Mind is very capable of forgetting the things we don’t like.

If you disagree with what they say, keep it to yourself, don’t argue. Make a note, rethink it later. Maybe they are right, maybe not. But don’t ruin the moment. Even if they are wrong about something, it’s a spot worth thinking about. Have in mind that somebody else might have the same feeling about that spot. If something’s good only for you, then it’s not good. Maybe it needs a bit more working on, after all.

After all the brutal and painful job is done, you’re free to ask about the good sides of the piece. That is not consolation time, you need that part of the critique as much as you needed the bad part. You should know what you have done good. Some things you did because you are good in what you do, but some you have done out of pure luck or maybe because you are good at it but you’re not aware of that particular strong spot of yours. Well, you should be aware of it if you want to keep doing it.

Good thing is that once you have established a good relationship with your peers, it’s much easier to get a quality critique. And you’ll be better in accepting it. So, get some courage and ask for it.

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8 comments

  • The caveat I'd add is that this all depends on two things: what you're asking for input on and who you're asking.  If you're asking for input on a creative piece, like artwork, and you're asking your non-creative friends, bear in mind that they may feel uncomfortable giving negative critique, even if you've explained to them that this is what you want and why you want it.  Many people are not comfortable criticizing others, and that discomfort is multiplied when it comes to criticizing others on unfamiliar subject matter.

    If you're fortunate enough to have friends who /will/ critique your work honestly, be sure to thank them for any negative input they give /before/ you jump to defend your work.  If your friend doesn't think there should be a circle off to the side, and you put that circle there intentionally to unbalance the painting as some sort of statement about the conformity of the art world, /thank/ your friend for his input before you start explaining why you put the circle there.  Your friend didn't get it: you asked for input, not for an opportunity to explain why you were right.  Now take that input and make the work better.

    (Oh.  All my "you"s in this are addressed to the Universal You, not to the dandellion-you, who gets it already.)

  • Thank you for the comment.
    Yes, I forgot about the thanking part, thanks for pointing that out. 
    About asking friends that are not fellow artists… I always find their comments very precious because they are more on the audience than creators side, if you know what I mean. They perceive the artwork without all the burden of people that are also involved in creating and without thinking about all the "behind the scenes" things. So, while they might miss the point of that displaced circle, they might signal you that your message is not universally recognized.

  • Oh, totally understood, and I wasn't suggesting that people /don't/ ask friends who aren't artists (or aren't writers, or aren't astrophysicists, or whatever).  Just saying that many people feel profoundly uncomfortable giving negative feedback, /especially/ when they have no background in a given field, so if you're lucky enough to have a friend who's willing to point out flaws, be grateful.

    I may not have phrased that very well!

  • Oh no, I understood, I just wanted to add to it. 
    And I know what you mean saying they might be not comfortable if they are not into given field. 
    While I was working at radio, I used to ask "non-audio" colleagues for an opinion. And each of them I had to persuade that I need their opinion more than of somebody that does audio production as I do. 

  • This could be applied not only to work of arts but also to gain information (or feedback if you want to use that very trendy noun) about yourself, i.e. your own self.
    It takes guts from both the sender and receiver to communicate criticism on someone's character.
    And if done properly the benefits are extraordinary… If done poorly, well, you only learn on mistakes (not necessarily your own)

  • bazinga

  • Well, one's own self might be considered a work of art, right?

  • Kat Alderson responded on the Plurk thread about this post. I'll paste her comment here, as it's a great addition to what's been said. 
    This is something I deal with in a professional capacity: getting people to accept and evaluate feedback. The easiest way to get friends to be totally honest is to ask a series of questions, not one or two. 
    "I've finished a project and I would like your opinion." When they say they like it, you ask, "What, specifically, do you like best?"
    They mutter some, you ask, "What, if anything else, do you like about it?"
    That covered, you ask, "What would you change, if you could?"
    And most importantly, "What do feel when you look at this?" followed by, "What would make you feel better about this?"
    And finally, and very important, thank them for their time and consideration, and make sure to include that it means a lot that they took their time to answer your questions.

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