How To Be A Critic

by Sean D'Souza

How To Be A Critic

As you chomp into any dish, something happens in your brain.
Your brain analyses the contents of the dish, compares it what it knows and then spits out a critique.

So the dish could be too salty, too sweet—or, or, or,—it could be just right, or even better than you’ve ever tasted before.

In a matter of seconds, we have feedback.

Whether we choose to voice our opinion or not, is totally our call.
And sometimes we don’t. And sometimes we do.

So should you be a critic?

The answer is yes. And no.

I remember my own pronunciation mistakes.

And as I grew up, I’d picked up several words from teachers, friends etc. And I’d pronounce those words incorrectly. So I’d pronounce the word ‘question’ as ‘ques-sin’. Or Tibet (as in the place, Tibet) as ‘Tib-it’.

My favourite series was the ‘tion’ series. Words like ‘consumption’, for instance. I’d use the ‘z’ sound, so it sounded like ‘con-zum-shun’. Well, let’s just say, that from time to time, a lot of folk here in Kiwi land would do a double-take when I spoke certain words.

The point is, I wanted to improve

So I appointed my friend and super-critic, Chris Parkinson, to pick up the glitches. If you know Chris, that’s what he’d do for a living. But anyway, he critiqued, and I fixed it. But there was a difference. I wanted to be critiqued.

I couldn’t hear myself, and even when corrected, I still had to work quite hard at pronouncing some very basic words like ‘industry, electricity’ and probably every word that started with ‘v’ (I’d say it with a ‘w’ sound).

But there’s a point that is important to note: I asked Chris to critique me.

Most of us don’t take critiques well, and unless asked for, critiques are often disregarded, even shunned. So the basic rule of critiquing is, don’t give advice unless asked. Don’t critique unless asked.’

But even when you critique, a rule should be observed

Let’s say for instance, in 5000bc, we have a critique section. In that section, every one who posts their website or article knows they’re going to be critiqued. But even when you’re asked to critique, you must only critique ONE thing at a time.

If you’re asked to critique a sales page, and you go nuts on that page, it’s not only too much for the person to take, but it’s also too much to fix all at once.

Therefore, even when critiquing, you need to make sure that you critique just one thing at a time.

And if you’ve been on a course with me, or watched carefully, I’ll tend to critique just one thing. In the Article Writing Course, for instance, there are several elements that we have to consider: Connectors, disconnectors, first fifty words, visual impact, blah, blah, blah.

But I will focus on just one thing to the exclusion of all others. This enables the person being critiqued to work on that one thing, fix it and move ahead.

So to be clear, don’t tackle more than one thing at a time. And only critique when asked.

But this rule changes under certain conditions

It changes when you have a common frame of reference. So, for example if everyone in the room has read The Brain Audit, and you’re on The Brain Audit course, then you’re expected to work with your team of 4-5 people.

You’re expected to critique as part of the course. If you don’t critique/help the other person, they actually feel neglected and hurt. And there’s a distinct possibility that they’ll drop out of the course.

Why? Because you can’t keep saying “great job” every single day. When you’re learning, you want to improve. But because you have a small group and because you have a common frame of reference, you can point to that frame of reference.

The frame of reference is extremely important

Because everyone has read The Brain Audit (on that course) they know what you’re referring to. They expect to be critiqued by the small group they’re working with. And most importantly, even if they don’t feel they’re qualified to critique, I have to let them know it’s okay to critique.

Because I’m reading every post and if the critique is off-target, I’ll get things on target. Or it may lead to an interesting discussion and we’ll all be the better for it.

But as you can see, there are several elements in place such as common frame of reference, expectation of critique, small group and most importantly that someone is overseeing every tiny post you make on the forum—and can direct you if you go off course.

I’ve been a critic

I thought it was normal to be a critic.
Obviously not.
In many cases people want you to just say ‘wow’.
In other situations, a ‘wow’ is wonderful, but the critique is expected as well.

You have to know when to do what.

And what is expected of you.
You may think that the better thing to do is just shut up and not offer any critique at all. And that’s a bit off the mark. Instead ask the person if they’d like a critique from time to time. If they trust you, they’ll say yes. And then please, don’t over do your critiques. Pick on one thing. And don’t be a pest. Intersperse critiques with praise.

Being a critic is a good thing. But as you’ve worked out, it depends on the circumstances.

P.S. Yes, you can critique anything we do or say at Psychotactics. Yes, anything. We want to fix things all the time. We even occasionally offer chocolate bars for your critique.

Do you have a story to share? It might earn you a chocolate bar. And New Zealand chocolate is really good. Post your story here.


Next Step
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The information and support I received from Sean and my fellow “cavers” about a single Web page was directly responsible for selling $10,000 worth of books in less than two weeks.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Fran Sorin February 21, 2012 at 3:35 pm

Hi Sean,

Your article resonated with me. First, I have never read an article that has touched on this subject in the blogosphere (yes or no?)

I concur with you 100%. As a spiritual coach, I mostly listen…ask the person if they’d like my input…and when they say ‘yes’, I only offer them one morsel to work on. It’s a good test. If they take my suggestion, follow through and practice and begin to incorporate it into their repertoire, I will eventually suggest another behavior to work on…if they want. If they don’t follow through, that’s good information. It tells me that the individual is not yet ready to make changes.

Switch to when I’m on the receiving end. I LOVE to get critiqued in certain arenas…the more the better. My brain is often able to assimilate 3 or 4 things at a time and work on one thing while keeping the others on the back burner (but having them in my consciousness). Once in a while, I’m able to work on a few ideas concurrently.

BUT when it comes to fine motor skills, I can only take it ONE change at a time….and slowly. I need to practice, practice, and practice (and ask to be shown several times again how to do it) before I’m able to change. An example….I started rowing a year and a half ago. Everyone at the rowing club, and I mean everyone, gave me tons of advice on how to become a better rowing. They meant well but phrases like ‘You just have to do’ went right over my head. I became overwhelmed, frustrated and anxious. I began to feel bad about myself. It was the old ‘I can’t do it/not good enough voice’. Because I have enough experience with my learning style, I pulled myself up by the bootstraps and told everyone time and again that I learn slowly and not to give me input….that I have a coach teaching me. Eventually 90% of them listened after several reminders from me.

My rowing has improved significantly. I have one coach who critiques me…and even with him, I need to remind him how I learn and that I want him to go over one point several time for me to ‘get it.’

My point….the amount of critiquing we can take…even for those who like it….often depends on the domain that we’re working on.

Fantastic post. Thanks so much!! Fran

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Sean DSouza February 22, 2012 at 11:09 am

That was a great post, Fran. Yes, sometimes it’s easy to I’m don’t do all three things if you’re familiar with them, but if they’re all brand-new then it soon becomes very overwhelming. I do tend to take a lot of steps together, though sometimes it’s a complete mess because you can take too many steps, and confuse yourself

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James February 21, 2012 at 8:10 pm

This reminds me of a time many years ago, I was in boot camp in the Army and was exchanging letters with my former grade school teacher. I was never real good in grammar and spelling. One day she corrected my letter in red ink and sent it back to me. I guess once a teacher always a teacher.

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Sean DSouza February 22, 2012 at 11:06 am

Ha ha that’s funny!

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Andrew February 23, 2012 at 3:35 am

Hi Sean

I enjoyed your article. In fact, I’ve sent it to a rather brash colleague.

Andrew

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Evelyn Budd January 22, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Couldn’t believe how two emails could come in at the same time and fit so well! My nephew emailed me:
Hi Auntie Ev, I’ve been working for a long time on this logo for the Ottawa Orienteering Club. I’ve gone through many iterations but I’m struggling to finish the job. I’ve got many small variations but I’ve converged on the attached design. At this point I think I’ve exhausted my artistic ability and figured a professional opinion would go a long way. I’ll be at home tomorrow during the day so if you could call the house when you’ve had time to look over it, I’d love to know what you think. Thanks, Eric
The logo was amazing!!! Just a couple of tiny tweaks, some testing and he’s good to go! I will be calling him tomorrow. Thanks for your tips on giving feedback. It’s not always this easy.
I’ve my share of having words corrected too. As a little kid at Brownie camp I had a “piddle”, I was hearing “pillow”. Couldn’t understand why they were laughing. ;-)

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Sean DSouza February 7, 2013 at 11:34 am
Vesco January 23, 2013 at 3:36 am

The method I find works best is Praise – Critique – Praise.
Or Polite Nonsense/Ego Pat – Critique – Polite Nonsense.

That’s if any formula is to be followed.

But thing is, Critique is actually the wrong (old) paradigm. We do need to go beyond tiptoeing around giving REAL feedback. Mirroring is one of the main benefits of any inter-relating. Subconsciously the totality of the feedback is transmitted immediately. And that totality has both good and bad in it.

Then again, only loving and positive has its own way of removing the potential objects of critique …

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Sean DSouza February 7, 2013 at 11:34 am

I’ve read research that shows that praise-critique-praise doesn’t work as well as it’s made out to be.

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Sean DSouza February 7, 2013 at 11:36 am

For instance, I could say:

- Wow, that was a great comment.
- But I don’t agree with it, because of the research.
- Still, that post was superb.

And the only line you’d be likely to focus on was the middle one. So it’s probably better to be straight up to begin with. I think most people want you to be straight up if you don’t go nuts with your critical appraisal.

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Sam Thatte January 23, 2013 at 5:12 am

Thank you for this article. It sheds light on a very important factor of why we critique others work and why we need our work to be critiqued as well. Yes we love giving and getting pats on the back but more importantly, it helps us to grow and get better.

Funny I read this post at an opportune time, because I just submitted a document in 5000 BC to be critiqued. A few people have seen it so far and had some good feedback for me. Still waiting for some more.

Your policy for yourself and others in 5ooo BC of limiting suggested fixes to one thing at a time, not only allows us to fix things step by step but also preserves self confidence. You don’t end up thinking you are a total dummy! LOL

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Sean DSouza January 23, 2013 at 10:34 am

I think it’s extremely hard to handle more than one thing at a time. Most people don’t think so, but I do. :)

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Marissa Sayno January 28, 2013 at 8:16 pm

Sean, I wonder if we’re all born – to criticize.. that’s why we have all sorts of discrimination in the society right now. I think, it’s only normal to be on the defense when someone’s like saying, ‘you aren’t good enough..’ And many still have to learn to criticize the action and not the person. In my experience, I often encounter clients & colleagues who will criticize your work not because it’s lacking, but because you’re ‘not’ their equal ( they’re white and I’m not ) – and I often find myself helplessly annoyed. Sometimes, you begin to wonder if they just do this to get back at you because somehow, you pointed out their flaws and they feel like you’re attacking them when you’re just wanting to make everyone come up with a permanent fix.

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Sean DSouza February 7, 2013 at 11:38 am

Yes, but it depends on the situation. When people are in a safe zone, they are able to praise and criticise quite a lot, but within limits. When people don’t feel safe, even the slightest criticism is considered quite harsh.

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Sean DSouza February 7, 2013 at 11:38 am

Also it’s not so much a matter of criticising. It’s that it seems easier than praise. If you praise heartily, it somehow seems odd for the person receiving the praise as well as the person giving the praise.

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Wyn February 16, 2013 at 9:39 am

For 20 years, I’ve been a member of two writer’s groups where I’ve both given and gotten critiques regularly. While the mantra has always been to start with positive feedback before going on to “what needs improvement”, even this guideline does not ensure that a critique is truly useful and not potentially devastating. I recently encountered one that shook me to my core.

Basically, my critiquer didn’t like my protagonist and called her a “spoiled brat”. This fellow author did start with “what I’d done well” and offered helpful suggestions. However, her saying that my heroine WAS a spoiled brat—instead of was BEHAVING like a spoiled brat—was somehow especially hurtful.

Even more difficult, however, was the blow to my still-wobbly confidence in my skills as a writer. I’d recently come to feel that I am doing publishable work. Her opinion (shared by some other members of the group) that my protagonist was not as sympathetic as I believed was VERY difficult to hear.

There is a silver lining in this cloud. The experience has brought to the surface the main demon from my past that has stopped me from pursuing writing as my career. I am now confronting this “boogeyman” instead of running away from it, and am hopeful of gaining the confidence I need.

The rule of “Be Kind, Be Helpful, or Begone” on 5000bc is good, as are their guidelines: 1) What I like about your work. 2) Where I see it’s a problem. 3) Why it’s a problem. 4) What are possible solutions. 5) Resources or links that may be helpful.

However, in a writer’s group it’s also vital to remember that the material one is critiquing rises from the author’s vulnerable center. One needs to respect that the person has done his or her best work, and is sharing something from their innermost spirit. This may be equally true of more business-oriented ventures, depending on the entrepreneur’s reasons for pursuing that venture. Thus, the importance of Be Kind whenever offering a critique of someone’s work!

PS — LOVE CHOCOLATE (hint!)

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