Character Design
Starting Out
Procrastination
A Note to Authors
Give a Helpful Critique
Online Crit Groups
The Blanking Page
Dummies for Smarties

FIRST, DO NO HARM: How to Give a Helpful Critique

We're in a symbiotic relationship with our critique group members. You critique my work, I'll critique yours — and in turn, we both learn more about our own work and ourselves. But how does a group stay on track and avoid slipping into mushy comments or hurt feelings? Introducing the backbone of every critique group; a good, strong critique.

One critique does not fit all. Tailor your comments to your critiquee's situation, skill-level, and style. It helps to ask if there are specific items you should focus on. One advantage of an established group—you are already familiar with each member and her abilities.

And what if you perceive that the critiquee's ability is higher than yours? Guess what? We all need to work on something and we all can improve. Don't be intimidated. This person wants other opinions—your opinions. Everyone has something to learn and something to offer.

Starting Point
Examine the work as a whole. What are you opinions about overall themes, color, composition, etc? How are the words and the images working together and playing off each other? Dig down a bit and look at smaller details—the way a hand is drawn, the structure of a sentence.

Note everything that is beautiful and interesting. Also note anything that makes you stop and say, "huh?"

Those "huh?" elements are the heart of your critique.

A Checklist for Picture Book Critiques

Story:

  • Is every word necessary?
  • Does it read well out loud?
  • Is there descriptive text that is redundant with the images?
  • Are the language and subject matter appropriate for the chosen age bracket?

Art:

  • Is the drawing strong and consistent with the chosen style?
  • Are the illustrations showing the most important or interesting part of the story?
  • Do color and page layout enhance the mood of the story?
  • Is the composition strong?
  • Is the movement to the right?
  • Are important elements away from the gutter?
  • Are characters drawn consistently?

Story and Art

  • Do the images and words compliment each other?
  • Does the story move forward with every page?
  • Are the characters interesting?
  • Are the rules of grammar and drawing correct and consistent? (exceptions for intentional style)
  • Do all aspects of the book feel as if they come from the same world?

Note: Consider reading others' comments only after you've almost finished your own. This will allow you to form your own pristine opinions of the piece. Feel free to add any additional reactions to your crit after you've read the others but don't hesitate to make a comment that someone else has already touched upon. The more times the critiquee hears the same comment, the harder she will look at that section for revision.

Hold the Mayo: The Sandwich Critique
Time to organize your observations into a digestible form. At Yellapalooza, we try to use the "Sandwich Critique." Positive/negative/positive.

First, point out all the things you feel are working particularly well, all those beautiful, interesting things. Explain what you like and why. Not only will this foster trust, it will show the critiquee that you understand and appreciate what she's trying to accomplish.

Then list the "huh?" aspects you discovered. You don't have to tap dance around the truth, just present your criticism in a professional manner by using specific, constructive words. (ex. The meter in the first stanza could be stronger.) Avoid general, negative comments (ex. The rhyme in this story is wrong) which only succeed in putting the critiquee on the defensive, effectively negating anything else you have to say.

Back yourself up by describing why you think a certain item isn't working and how it might be strengthened. (ex. The first and third line should have the same number of beats and emphasis, as well as a true rhyme.) Offering suggestions isn't "redoing" the work for the critiquee; you are simply explaining your comment in greater detail.

Whatever you do, don't be "nice" and skip this important section. The critiquee wants/needs to hear that some areas could use more attention. After all, isn't that why we're in a critique group in the first place?

Lastly, sew your critique up with an encouraging finish. End with positive, high-level comments about the work as a whole. The "negative" heart of the crit is nestled between the positive, protective ribs.

Note: if you can't come up with any positive comments, either don't critique this piece or contact your moderator for advice. If you're critiquing the moderator, run!

In Critiques We Trust
Your comments should be offered freely, with affection and respect. Once given, let them go. It's the recipient's decision to take or leave them. If she asks questions about your comments, she isn't challenging you; she just wants to understand you better. And if the critiquee does seem to take your constructive criticism badly, that's her issue. You've followed the "sandwich" critique method and communicated professionally; you've done your job.

While a good, in-depth critique can take a little time out of your day, don't think of it as wasted. It will come back to you tenfold. Not only will you get a robust critique from this person when your time comes, you'll improve your own skills—observation, communication, and problem solving. Plus, you get the warm fuzzies knowing that you helped a fellow artist one step further down the path of success.

 

Please Do... Try Not To...
  • Start and end with something positive
  • Say what you like and why
  • Say what you don't like and why
  • Be polite and professional
  • Give only positive feedback
  • Offer harsh criticism without constructive suggestions
  • Use personal attacks

To Get as Well as Give

I love getting critiques. It makes me feel acknowledged and important. Someone took the time to think about my work and give feedback. What a precious gift.

This is the place to learn how to take criticism in a supportive environment. There is no guarantee that editors and art directors will have the time to be as helpful and nurturing as your critique group.

Note: It's a good idea to mention what you want a critiquer to focus on. If you feel you need help with the characterization or the perspective, let them know.

Don't feel discouraged if you feel you received a negative critique. If your work were totally hopeless, you probably wouldn't have gotten a critique at all. The critiquer cared enough to spend time on you—that's a good sign.

Take some time away from your work, then pull it out and think long and hard about each comment. Some things that you may have assumed were clear may not be. Other things may be awkward or incorrect. That's the beauty of feedback. You are so close to your work and are wrapped up in it emotionally. Your critique group has no such ties—they can help you view your work from another perspective. Pay special attention to recurring comments. If more than one person is noticing a potential weakness, you've probably got more work to do.

Don't be afraid to ask for clarification of a comment. And just because someone offers a comment, you are not obligated to implement it. Just be open to other solutions—they might not be appropriate for this project, but they might spark other ideas. This is your story, but you must think of what's best for the story.

Conversely, don't be afraid to use a good suggestion. It's still your work.

If the Shoe Doesn't Fit
Critique groups come in all sizes and shapes. If you are constantly feeling under attack, however, you may either be in the wrong group or perhaps you're not ready for a critique group. Is it what they said that upset you, or the way they said it? Are they using attack words to describe your flaws or are you just not interested in any negative comments? Or worse, are the critiques always positive and vague, giving you no useful information? I've had my share of unhelpful critiques and critique groups. Sometimes it takes three or four tries to get the right mix.

Note: If you are looking for only positive feedback, you may not be ready for a critique group. There's nothing wrong with this—we're all at different stages in our careers. Perhaps a message board is better for your current needs

Most of all, thank the critiquer for her time. And remember what you valued about this feedback the next time it's your turn to critique someone else.