I remember the first time my work was critiqued. It was an assignment to create a pencil drawing of a still life. I spent hours working to get it just right. It included books, a plant, and a ceramic rabbit (think the experience may have been burned into my brain?). The critique was conducted in front of the entire class, which added a new level of horror for me. The instructor went over each student's piece pointing out the good, the bad, and how we could improve our work. She was tentative and kind, knowing that this was a new and difficult process for most of us. At first, I was crushed by the whole experience. After sitting with it for a bit, I could see the problems she pointed out and was able to build on and improve my piece with her suggestions and advice.
Years later, I signed up for a group critique conducted by a very well-known artist agent during a conference. To say I was out of my comfort zone was an understatement. Even though I had been through many critiques of both my writing and artwork in the intervening years, this woman was a big deal. I entered the room with 10 to 15 other artists hoping for a constructive interaction. Someone who was a successful artist and agent studying our work and giving us sage advice on how we could improve our work and achieve success in our chosen market.
What actually happened was very unexpected and quite the opposite. Each piece was picked apart, judged, and ridiculed. Not a single artist escaped a scathing review. What could have been an amazing and instructive interaction left us all feeling blindsided and bullied. Did I mention we paid extra for the privilege?
Whether it's writing or art, having something you created, spent your time, heart, and imagination on analyzed by someone else can be nerve wracking. It can make you defensive or hurt your feelings. It can also be a constructive, eye-opening experience.
The way I approach a critique these days is to, in effect, divorce myself from my work. That way I can take in what is being said as though I had nothing to do with the creation and can really hear what is being said. That gives me the perspective and ability to learn from what someone else sees.
Have you ever watched a professional golfer being interviewed after a round? They analyze their game as though it was someone else out there on the course. It allows them the distance to see what they did well and where they could improve. I think if we artists, writers, creators could do that, we would be able to see more clearly what is necessary to improve without the stabbing pain of feeling personally attacked.
I have paid for many critiques at conferences over the years and all but one have been positive experiences. Though I have never walked away with a book deal or a contract, they have each taught me something new. There are times I wish the critique had been more blunt, though I know most agents/editors/writers doing the critiques are not prepared to completely dash a person's dreams and are unsure just how honest they should be. It would be helpful to know when your writing or art really isn't good and needs some serious work. There is a way to deliver such news without being hateful and driving someone into the nearest cave.
As the title suggests, critiques ARE critical. In order to grow and improve in your craft, you can't be a one-person admiration society. We all need the ability to step outside our work and see it through the eyes of a trusted, reliable person (whom we do not house or feed) or group. An extra viewpoint is never a bad thing. You don't have to follow the suggestions, just listen, consider, and then do what you feel is best for your work.
Artist and author.