5 Tips for Crafting Effective Criticism

As you may be aware, I currently have a part-time job analyzing books and screenplays for a production company. I read the material, provide a detailed synopsis, and then offer my opinion as to whether the material has promise as a feature film. Last night’s work read was an especially challenging one, offering a strong premise but weak-to-infuriating execution, and as I had just given some notes to a writer friend of mine on how to improve her (already-wonderful) work, I got to thinking about how I tailor my criticism based upon who’s on the receiving end. That inspired this post for Daily Blog Tips’s latest writing project on what I think are the underlying principles of giving criticism that works.

1. Know your audience.

Criticism is not one-size-fits-all. Within my world, there are three types of criticism I am asked to give:

  1. Personal. In my opinion, this is the most difficult kind of criticism to give–criticism presented directly to the writer or other content creator by their invitation. I’ve done this as a teacher, as a private consultant, and as a friend, and my mantra here comes by way of the great Dan Allender: when invited to critique someone’s work, keep in mind that you are treading on holy ground. That is not to say that you must be positive and cheerful and tell them that they are wonderful. You are not Mom. What it does mean is that you’ve been entrusted with the care and feeding of something that is likely to be very close to their heart. Your first task is to identify what it is that they are trying to do, then offer criticism that helps them achieve that goal. This may mean ripping it to shreds, but the goal is not destruction. Rather, the goal is to reduce the piece to its essential working parts in order to find the best way to put them together.

    I will say that working with screenwriters aiming to enter the marketplace does add a difficult dynamic, because some premises are just not worth pursuing at all, even if they were perfected. There are certain taboo story subjects (movies set in Hollywood, for example), and certain legal restrictions (don’t write a screenplay based on an work you don’t control). That’s always hard news to give.

  2. Private. I do a lot of work-for-hire criticism, where a company will pay me to vet work for them. In order to do the best job that I can, I need to understand the needs and goals of the company hiring me. In a lot of ways, my personal opinion is irrelevant in and of itself. The question that my employers want answered is, “Should we make this movie?” My answer will be different for a big studio specializing in effects franchises versus a New York-based indie production company looking to make the next Half Nelson. Whether I prefer shoot-em-ups or heartfelt character studies is completely beside the point. I also need to keep on top of industry trends so that I’m not writing in a bubble.
  3. Public. Examples in this category are movie reviews I’ve written for print & web (and my old college newspaper), the reviews I write for this blog, and the academic work I did in graduate school. With this type of criticism, my obligation is to add to the public discourse surrounding the work I’m reviewing. I aim to identify larger conversational strands (ie, is genre literature?) and use my evaluation of the work to shed light on an area of that conversation. I may also use my platform to communicate my passions into the world, giving a boost to those writers and filmmakers whose work I admire and chipping away at those whose work I don’t.

Which leads me into my next point:

2. Know your place.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I’m a highly subjective reviewer, and not afraid to admit it. I have a lot of writer friends, and when I blog about their books I’m sure to mention the connection. I have definite biases and weaknesses, and I think you all know I’m not an expert in literature, not by a long shot. I’m just a reader who wants to talk to other readers. However, I have a very different voice when it comes to writing film reviews, and I count on my academic and professional credentials to lend weight to the words that I’m writing. Finally, when I write coverage, I’m a cog in the machine, and my success is measured by how well my work enables my bosses to do their jobs effectively.

Think about how you want to be perceived by your intended audience. If you want to be seen as an expert, make sure you know what you’re talking about. If you want to be a fangirl, make sure your audience knows what you like and dislike. Don’t mistake subjectivity and objectivity–be clear about which is which and don’t try to pass one off as the other.

3. Add to the conversation.

No criticism exists in a vacuum. Whatever your area of expertise or passion is, make sure you are taking steps to educate yourself every day. For me, professionally, this means keeping up with industry news and familiarizing myself with the latest new movies and TV shows. In order to do a good job as a film critic or coverage writer, I need to know the latest trends in movie and TV watching, as well as what the latest big book and script deals have been.

Good criticism opens up the lines of dialogue. It does not shut them down. You can present strong opinions, even strongly negative opinions like “this is the worst movie ever made” as long as you can explain WHY. Nobody cares about one person’s opinion–what people care about is “how does this opinion influence my own?” (Personally, this is why I don’t care for Anthony Lane of The New Yorker.)

4. Engage your emotions.

Great criticism comes from great passion. And when it comes to criticizing art, the main question is, “How did this move me?” Formal analysis is important, often necessary, but not as an end in itself (unless you’re writing papers toward your MA in Cinema Studies). Don’t mistake objectivity for robotic automatism.

By the same token, don’t let your emotions master you. If you have a strong gut reaction to something, make sure you know how to articulate beyond just, “It made me want to go back in time and stop cameras from being invented.” There is always a “why” behind a feeling. Figuring out how to articulate emotions into thoughts is one of the key tasks of the critic.

5. Enjoy what you do.

During my tenure as a film critic, I realized that I really didn’t enjoy it! I couldn’t get personally invested in the new movies coming out each week and really started to resent the time I was spending watching movies that I didn’t think were worth anybody’s time. So I stopped, for the most part. I enjoy writing the occasional piece about an older film or about some topic in film history, and as long as I don’t do it all the time I can keep fresh.

There’s really no good reason to be a critic if you’re not just wild about your chosen field. I love writing about the books I read. I love analyzing books-to-movies. I love working with writers. I hate reading criticism that comes from a place of contempt for the very subject being discussed (Guardian Books Blog, I’m talking to you). The bloggers I read on a regular basis are those who know that you’ve got to love before you hate (Sam Van Halgren, you will be missed).

This post is for Daily Blog Tips’s latest writing project, accepting entries through September 18th, 2007.

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