How to Critique Someone’s Creative Effort

Stephen F. Dennstedt

How to critique someone’s creative effort. Like social media there is an unspoken etiquette and protocol to be followed. However, as social norms continue to break down we would all do well to revisit some of those rules. So here goes.

Rule number one: don’t offer unsolicited advice—EVER. If someone wants your opinion or advice they will ask for it. Rule number two: keep it private. No one, I mean no one, wants to be patronised in public.

Rule number three: the (constructive) criticism should always be about the creation itself and not about the person (the creator—small “c”)—it should be meant to help and to educate the creative and their process and most certainly should not be about the ego of the critic. Don’t be that ugly little person who feels compelled to put down the creative efforts of others only to make themselves look better (smarter, more talented, more deserving). In reality that person only ends up looking like the small, insecure, petty and envious creature they are (the green-eyed monster is a sick little beast).

Abandoned Manor HouseClifden, County Galway – Ireland

Finally, when asked to critique a creative’s effort be POSITIVE! Find two or three positive aspects of the creation and talk about them in some depth. And though there might be many things that need improving pick only one (the most salient one) to offer advice on. And for God’s sake resist the temptation to lecture—instead use phrases like: next time you might want to consider this or that. And try to differentiate between real technical flaws and personal preferences—one represents an opportunity for improvement and the other represents the creative’s artistic expression (two entirely different things).

Christ ChurchClifden, County Galway – Ireland

A well-rounded critique offers both sincere praise and well-intentioned suggestions—praise should always comes first. A good meaningful critique is not rocket science or at least it shouldn’t be. By definition a critique is: a detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory. Unfortunately, the word critique (like criticism) has come to mean: [an] expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes. A critique is an evaluation, an analysis, not an indictment. 

Field Notes: My creative activities include: photography, writing and travel. When I’m asked (and only when I’m asked) to critique another photographer’s work I first look at the technical merits of the image: focus, exposure and composition. These are the technical aspects of a photo that need to be spot-on (but are often missing). Digital post-processing (Photoshop & Lightroom) is also fair game—many digital images are over processed. The rest has to do with storytelling and artistic expression—the creative’s vision. The vision is open to interpretation but not necessarily to criticism in my opinion. SFD


6 responses to “How to Critique Someone’s Creative Effort

  1. Excellent suggestions, Stephen. Personally, I would be upset if someone critiquing my work only gave me one suggestion (unless that’s all they could find…which is highly unlikely). If someone is kind enough to take the time, I want to know everything that didn’t work. Because I can’t fix it if I don’t know. Constructive criticism is how I learned to write.

    In the same way, when I’m critiquing the work of another author, I give them my full effort, time and attention, everything that comes up, the great, the wonderful, and the not so great. I feel that if I see something and don’t mention it, I’m denying them the opportunity to make a choice about the observation. To me, leaving out those comments implies that I don’t really care and can’t be bothered.

    I’d be really interested in your thoughts on this.

  2. If I was paying for a professional critique I would totally agree with you. Before I retired and took up my new career I was a VP with the largest bank in the USA for thirty years and was involved in a lot of constructive criticism to employees. We were taught in our professional continuing education classes to limit our “needs improvement” comments to one thing at a time (even though there might be more) because the average person can’t handle the perceived negative overload. That always stuck with me: 2 to 3 positives and 1 needs improvement. That formula always worked well for me and folks I talked to didn’t walk away feeling devastated and overwhelmed. A few years back I was a curator for an online photo gallery and curated literally thousands of photos so I carried that critiquing formula over to that new venue and it worked well there too. Again, if I was paying for a full in-depth analysis and review I would want the whole enchilada but your average “creative” usually can’t handle it. They can accept one thing (even if there are more) but once they think they’re being piled on they get defensive and stop listening . . . and you have to listen to positive criticism if it’s going to do any good. Just my opinion of course. Thanks for taking the time to comment I always appreciate it. Steve

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