Criticism: The Intent and the Details

There’s a certain expectation, even among people who like criticism, that the creator and the critic will end up in conflict, or at the very least misunderstanding each other. Someone steps away from an artform after receiving what should have been a compliment, goes all icy after a critique that she did ask for, and to almost everyone involved it makes no sense. But there’s one factor that often explains these otherwise confusing incidents: the difference between intent and detail.

What most of the people I’ve seen critiquing operate by is the question, “How can I do better?” And yes, that’s a useful one to have answered. So they start picking the thing-to-be-critiqued apart looking for flaws—word choice here, a couple lines in the wrong place there, failure of perspective, railroading when a softer touch would have worked better, you get the idea. Detail-work, focused on the negative. A somewhat less detail-oriented critic might instead see it as being asked, “Overall, how good is this?”, and answer according to that framework. A useful thing to do—but not always what’s actually being requested.

But it’s just as likely that what’s really being looked for is the question, “Does this do what I want it to?” In this case, it doesn’t matter to the GM if she completely misremembered how one of the antagonist’s showier powers worked, nor to the writer if she’s got two paragraphs straight where all the sentences begin with the same word, nor to the artist if the shoulder really should be jutting out a bit more or one of the windows came out concave rather than convex. (Yet, anyway. One thing at a time.) What matters in this case is knowing if the overall effect is correct. Was the antagonist decently intimidating and interesting? Did the scene make you reach for the tissues? Does the combination of this expression, these accouterments and this pose make you think that if you were to run into this person in real life the best thing to do would be to start backing away slowly and hope like anything there’s someone or something you can hide behind?

If there’s one thing that I’ve seen cause friction between creator and critic, it’s usually a mismatch like this—someone wants the impact and gets the quality question. (Heck, I saw this as a plot to a children’s book once; the kid nearly gives up drawing because the teacher praises her drawing of her dog as a really good rabbit. Some concepts are universal.) Even order can make a difference, as I once discovered. I’d tossed a friend of mine the second draft of the lineart for a character sketch I’d been working on—his style being less realistic than mine, I’d figured he’d start with conceptual stuff like how the character comes across or what her expression got across (I’d spent most of my lunch break on that face, blast it, I wanted to know if I needed to go back to the drawing board.) And what I get is an explanation of what I’ve done wrong with her arm. Helpful? Yeah, technically. At that moment, without my real question answered? I was rather tempted to bite his head off.

The critic has two options. One, of course, is to ask what sort of response the creator wants so as not to answer the wrong question. Failing that, I would suggest defaulting to starting by looking at intent rather than detail—what does this piece do? It’s likelier to be what the creator’s looking for, it comes across as a whole lot less obnoxiously nitpicky, and it makes it easier to begin with something positive, as the professor under whom I did two semesters of writer’s workshop pretty much mandated, or at the very least neutral. For her own part, the creator can help by actually specifying what it is she wants help with when she opens her work for critique; it doesn’t mean people won’t talk about things she isn’t actually looking for, but it does at least make sure they’ll say something about what she wants.

So if you’re not sure why someone is refusing the help they just asked for, or why they’ve got such a problem with the help you’re giving them, think about whether you’re addressing intent or detail. It might make a difference.


  1. Brickwall says:

    For what it’s worth, some of us really do like a completely comprehensive critique. Every mistake found is a lesson learned, and every lesson learned is a step on the path to greatness.

    Not that I’ve never wanted a specific question answered out of a critique, of course. But in my opinion, it’s my responsibility to ask the exact question I want answered. I’ve been to writer workshops where it was mandatory that the writer ask questions of the critics (after the big long ’shut up while we tear the thing apart’ section), and I certainly think it’s a good practice. Then again, I’m from the school of thought where you sit by as your work is assaulted and molested by critics from all sides and you just say “thank you sir, may I have another?”, so I’m not sure how much weight my opinion carries to the writing community.

  2. Ravyn says:

    Indeed, some do. Problem is, I’ve seen as many comprehensive critiques as not that never actually got around to the intent, being more concerned with the detaily bits. It’s rather frustrating. Better to have the intent out of the way early and be safe, hm?

  3. Brickwall says:

    Often, nay, nearly always, issues with the details obscure intent. It’s partly an issue of not seeing the forest for the trees (it’s harder when the trees are particularly eye-grabbing), but it’s also partly an issue of details being the very essence of communicating intent. Some very small word choices can completely change the mood of a piece to the point where the intended mood is unrecognizeable. A smudged shadow can destroy the creepiness of a master’s horror painting. Goodness knows every piece I make suffers from this issue.

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