Making the most of collaboration
By Bex Peterson, Editor-in-Chief
There’s nothing more nerve-wracking then taking your beloved work-in-progress and handing it over to someone for the sole purpose of having them tell you everything that’s wrong with it. It can be a frustrating and demoralizing process on both sides; as the artist you’re going to feel compelled to defend your work, and as an editor or critic it’s pretty annoying to spend time trying to help someone only for them to completely ignore your advice. However, learning to give and receive constructive criticism (a.k.a. “concrit”) is an invaluable skill for any writer, musician, visual artist, filmmaker, what have you. Here are my tips for bridging the gap between artist and critic.
It’s not about you, it’s about the art
Artists, I know it feels like the art you create is as inseparable from you as a limb. Coming from that mindset it’s hard not to take criticism personally—a critic isn’t just calling your story structure confusing and bloated, but they’re calling you confusing and bloated! However, it’s impossible to improve if you’re so attached to your first draft that you’re unwilling to take the advice of others on how to fix things. A good method of getting over that protective feeling is to sit on criticism for a while before responding. Give yourself some space to process feedback before dismissing it out of hand. Once you give your feelings some time to get out of the way, you’ll be surprised how good it feels to know there are things you can do to improve your piece of art as well as your craft on the whole.
Likewise, critics, try to differentiate between something that is a problem in a piece of art and something you don’t like personally. In writing, tense-switching to a point where the narrative becomes muddled is a genuine structure problem; however, a writer’s choice to stick with writing in the present tense is a valid, subjective choice. You can still comment on it in your feedback but be clear about where you’re coming from. It’s completely reasonable to say, “I personally don’t know if this aspect of the piece really works because of x y z, but it’s up to the artist’s discretion.”
It’s not a style choice if it’s a mistake
As an editor, I don’t know how many times I’ve given feedback along the lines of “the dialogue feels stilted because human beings don’t really talk like this” only to get “well my character talks like this” as a response. Yes, there is a time and a place for stylization; however, if your style is distracting from the art itself, you might want to revise your vision. You need to learn the rules before breaking them—often the “style choice” defence is used as an excuse not to practice basic skills. Really ask yourself if the style is necessary for what you’re making, or if you’re just reluctant to fix your craft.
As for critics, well—sometimes it’s not a mistake, it’s a style choice. Just because something is alienating to you doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong or bad. Analyze carefully, look for consistency, and check whether or not the artist has their basics down; if they seem to know what they’re doing, then the style could be serving a specific purpose. If the “style choice” is inconsistent, it’s probably a mistake that could be cleaned up in a later draft. If it’s consistent however, then your feedback would fall more along the lines of subjective criticism—it might not work for you, but you can see why the artist has chosen to do it.
Give and receive criticism in good faith
Artists, I cannot stress this enough—if you do not want your work criticized and edited, do not ask for constructive criticism. I find that often people are looking for solely validation and encouragement from concrit circles without telling others of this intention, and that’s really not what these spaces are for. Keep in mind that the people giving you feedback aren’t (or at least, shouldn’t be) looking to make you feel bad. They’re trying to help you to create something better and become a better artist in the process. If you’re unwilling to listen to what they have to say, you’re really just wasting everyone’s time, including your own.
Critics, please remember that there’s a human being on the other end of your criticism. If you aren’t offering solutions to problems you bring up and if your focus is just on tearing a piece down instead of helping the artist make something better, you’re not really helping. Embrace the compliment sandwich; there’s no such thing as a piece of art with no inherent value. Letting an artist know what is working with their piece helps them figure out what their strengths are and what they need to work on just as much as pointing out the flaws.