Thursday, May 26, 2011

Unleashing Your Inner Critic

Last week one of our loyal Scribble Chicks readers requested a post on the art of critiquing. So being the obliging "chicks" that we are, I'm dedicating today's post to precisely that. :)

It's funny because long before I even knew what the proper term was, I've been a lifelong evaluator of all things entertainment. Even when I was a kid, I wasn't afraid to tell anyone what I thought about a specific song, movie, book, you name it.

So I guess it's pretty fitting that penning my thoughts on pop culture is the bulk of what I do as a full-time freelance writer. In fact, I still remember my first review that was published in the now-defunct 7Ball magazine like it was yesterday. My editor at the time, Chris Well (who I still write columns for to this day in Family Fiction), had assigned me a 400-word review of The Elms' The Big Surprise. And being the diligent burgeoning talent that I was (ha ha), I worked on this piece for four days—editing each and every word to perfection.

But I was still 300 words I had to trim the fat some more. And more. And more. And then, at long last, I e-mailed the article to him.

A few days later, it showed up on my desk, practically bleeding red ink. See, even though I had opinions, I still had a lot to learn about the art of critiquing. So I wisely reviewed his edits and filed them away for the next time.

Thankfully, there was much, much less red ink when I reviewed that Newsboys' album.

See, the thing about critiquing is, it's not enough to have opinions. But that is a great starting point. Once you have your point of view all worked it, it's time to defend it. Why do you feel the way you do? If it's a movie, for example, why did it charm you (or fail to do so). Did the story have emotional resonance? Were the actors believable? Was the direction even remotely inspiring? These are the kinds of questions you ask yourself when you're evaluating art of any kind.

Then in your unique voice (and yes, this is crucial for being a memorable reviewer), you set up why you feel the way you do about said movie. And as tempted as you may be not to want to ruffle anyone's feathers or hurt anybody's feelings, it's absolutely essential to tell the truth. Now of course, that means I have to keep my sarcasm in check because there's a right way and a wrong way to tell the truth. But a little snark from time to time isn't necessarily a bad long as you aren't mean-spirited.

Being a good critic also means knowing your audience. If you're writing for a teen publication, you want to be able to speak their language. Plus, knowing who's reading also helps you tailor your commentary to what they're wondering about. Case in point: My readers at are wanting to know whether a film has any redemptive value or is appropriate for the entire family. So I make sure to cover those points with each and every review in some way...

As far as being a critique partner (something our reader was also wondering about), that's a proverbial horse of a different color. Unlike being a reviewer of entertainment, you're helping a fellow writer out. Yes, some of the same principles apply (like being honest, but appropriately so), but mainly you're wanting to be a friend, a cheerleader in what's a very time-consuming process, namely writing a novel.

So when someone asks for your opinion, it's important to speak the truth in love. But more than just giving a gut reaction, supported with compelling reasons for why you feel that way, it's great to have some constructive ideas of what he/she could do differently, too. If they have a shred of a good idea, that'll give him/her something to run with, so they can eventually be well on their way to getting their work out there to the masses.