Monday, September 26, 2011

Constructive Critiques

by Joan Waites

Seasoned writers and artists know that one of the most helpful ways to improve your work is to receive critiques from trusted colleagues and critique partners. Having a fresh “eye” to evaluate a project you have worked on in solitude for days, weeks, months or even years can bring to the surface glaring mistakes you have overlooked, along with some new ideas for improvement.

Learning how to evaluate your own work or someone else’s in a way that offers positive help is the essence of a constructive critique. Offering only positive comments, (for example: “that’s great!”, “terrific!” or “wonderful!), so as not to hurt someone’s feelings, does not contribute anything useful.  Offering only negative comments, (“I don’t like it”, “It’s just bad”, or “It will never sell”) without any suggestions for improvement also offers nothing to concrete.

Engaging students in a constructive critique session can be a useful teaching tool. Students will hopefully learn how to accept criticism graciously, as well as offer  suggestions to their fellow classmates in a positive way.

Have students begin the critique with a positive comment. If critiquing student artwork, some suggestions for comments are as follows:

Do they admire the artist’s skill?
The choice of colors?
The subject matter?
The composition and perspective?
Does the work leave an emotional impact?

Next move on to how the work could be improved, instead of asking for negatives. For example:

What different color choices, subject matter, composition or perspective might make the artwork more visually appealing? 
What changes could be incorporated into the existing piece without starting over?

If critiquing student writing, break the class into smaller groups and have them critique each other’s work.  Depending on the age and level of the students, comments can be simple or deal with more complex concepts.

What did they like most about the story?
Did the story have interesting and believable characters?
Is there a clear story arc?
Was there a satisfying ending?

Next, ask how all of the above could be improved upon instead of offering negative remarks.

Have the students write down some of the comments they received in their critiques. Ask them to take a few days to really think about what was said, then revisit their artwork or writing and incorporate some of the suggestions. Have the students present their revised work to the class and talk about what comments they found helpful, what changes were made, and if they decided not to change something, explain why.

Learning how to accept constructive criticism as well as give it is an important lesson for students of all ages to learn.  Criticism is sometimes bitter medicine to swallow (and to give out), but if the dose is given with a pinch of sugar, it’s a lot easier to take!

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