Erik Ehn, the best teacher of playwriting in the known universe (among other accomplishments), has a maxim I repeat often: “Good criticism is that which encourages more writing.”
It’s a hard credo to live by. “I don’t like it,” “I didn’t get it,” or “It’s too long” is a lot easier to come up with than something which will encourage the creation of more work.
I’ve taken Erik’s wisdom into the work place for years now, telling teams that “Good criticism is that which encourages more conversation.” Also hard, turns out.
I’m often reminded of how important it is to find partners and collaborators who know how to offer criticism. More specifically, who enjoy offering criticism targeted to encouraging more _____. I think the Ehn postulate might be successfully reduced to, “Good criticism is that which encourages more.”
What Bad Looks Like
A couple months ago we saw the magnificent example of terrible criticism, the “Deranged Sorority Girl” email. So much criticism comes from the same place as the final lines of this screed, doesn’t it?
DSG: And for those of you who are offended at this email, I would apologize but I really don’t give a fuck. Go fuck yourself.
The other way we say “I don’t give a fuck. Go fuck yourself.” when offering criticism is, “I’m just being honest.” Or “I’m just calling it like I see it.” It offers the recipient of the critique absolutely no purchase. “Look, it just didn’t work for me. That’s just how I see it.” There is nothing for a creative person to do with that other than feel bad or determine you’re an asshole (likely the former, since creative people will generally seize upon any excuse to feel bad).
Makin’ Stuff Is Hard
Turns out it’s really easy to not do things. I am an absolute ROCK STAR at watching TV and playing videogames. Most of us are likely Olympic Gold Medal-level competitors at procrastination. Actually doing something is hugely difficult for many of us. Doing something creative, unique and perhaps personal? Oy. Why on earth would you ever do that? All incentive in our society is toward not doing that. You will be rejected. You will fail. You will have to try and try and try just to get even kind of good at it.
So, when you decide to be a totally crazy person and try to do something, here is my advice: find people who offer criticism that is useful and that encourages doing more. The people who tell you they’re just giving you the “raw truth” and “pulling no punches,” have settled in on a critical pattern that fulfills their own need to be heard, their own desire to say whatever they want without filter; it is clearly not important to them how their criticism will actually affect you. If it were, they would likely ask you how you’d like to hear difficult opinions.
And when you’re building a team at work that’s trying to create something new, avoid the people who think they are helping by mercilessly shitting on the work of others. They’re probably right. The work probably is mediocre, or too long, or facile, or whatever. But then all work is. It’s easy to be the person in the room who says stuff sucks. Everything sucks. You’re always right. It’s the person who can seize on what’s great and help bring it out that’s worth your time.
What Good Looks Like
In videogames, most of the art departments I’ve worked with have been accomplished at critique. They look at each other’s work and offer helpful tips, remain straightforward and businesslike. They usually apply the criticism sandwich model (say something positive, offer critique, say something positive). I find this pattern too formal and impersonal.
One of my favorite models could be called “willful vulnerability,” where collaborators simply insist on exposing what will hurt them. When you are very clear about what will make you cry, and the parties providing critique are trustworthy, it’s very easy for them to avoid making you cry (because you told them what to avoid doing). There’s also a certain vulnerability necessary to offer good critique — to be willing, for instance, to reveal that you’re dumb. “I honestly didn’t understand the part everyone else was laughing at. Can you help me understand it?” Willful vulnerability is quite powerful when you’re with a group you trust implicitly. It’s very hard to do with strangers or co-workers.
The finest model — and it’s one you will recognize immediately when you’re working with someone who applies it — is the “assumed master” approach. Here’s how it works:
Someone just shared their work with you. There were many things in it that you did not understand. What do you do?
You assume the person sharing is a master at their craft and you try to backtrack to find the reason why you didn’t understand — what clever trick was the master pulling? Your critique can be, simply, talking through your thought process. In hearing you describe what you heard, “the master” will likely learn something about her work AND be encouraged to do more of it. And when you get stuck — you just can’t work out why the master did something — well, she may find that helpful too.
You never allow yourself to conclude that something didn’t work because the master failed. You try to suss out the deeper meaning that must be there because this is, after all, the master. And the master is a bad ass.
Approaching critique from the assumption that you’re dealing with a genius is actually incredibly fun and rewarding. I’ve sat in rooms of playwrights applying this model where the author being “criticized” was an absolute novice, new in his craft. The author just sat listening to much more experienced writers talking about his work like it was Brecht or Beckett, drawing profound connections and meaning from the work. Were those connections there by the author’s intent? Who cares? The process of having his work talked about like it was the greatest writing of the 20th century certainly encouraged more. It very definitely helped him see what was possible in his work.
And sure, there were clunky lines, and things that could have been stronger. And we could have spent the time tearing those apart to make it very clear to the writer that he was not as skilled as he would need to be to really “make it” as a writer. But he has the whole entire rest of the world to tell him that for the rest of his natural existence. Because that’s what the world generally tells creative people. So, you know, why not zig when the rest of the world zags?
This model is so much more rewarding than telling someone how crappy you think their work is, or competitively finding things to pick at. It is vital that anyone creative disabuse themselves of the notion that their “I just didn’t get it,” or “Nope. Didn’t work for me,” are so much richer and more meaningful than anyone else’s utterances of the same shitty things. When someone opens themselves for critique, you have an opportunity to elevate them and yourself, to open a door to incredible possibilities that weren’t there just moments earlier. What could possibly be better than that? Don’t you, like all of us, want more?