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February 21, 2008 2:44 AM   Subscribe

How do you critique a friend's work, without hurting his feelings?

A friend of mine showed me two of his films and asked me to give him my honest opinion. This person and I are very close, and I have no problems telling him what's going through my mind, so when he asked me to do this for him, I said sure. I told myself that I wasn't going to tell him anything if it didn't live up to my expectations (he's a very talented and gifted writer, which makes it even harder for me to not hold him up to a much higher standard), so when I saw his first movie, I was really happy that he'd done such a good job, at least in my estimation, and I let him know about it in no uncertain terms. The only problem is, I think I did the same thing with the second one, only the other way around. I didn't like it as much as the first one, and even though I knew better, I told him what I thought he could've done differently with the movie (although not in any way that might've hurt his feelings, again, in my opinion).

He was appreciative of the honesty, and I was careful not to have crossed the line too much, but I do feel like I may have done something that I shouldn't have. (He's not someone who's influenced by what other people think of him, he's very hard-headed, but he did trust me enough to ask me my opinion of what I thought of his work, and now I feel like I may have betrayed him.) Did I betray him? Was it right of me to tell him what I thought?

How do you tell a friend the truth and still be a good friend?
posted by hadjiboy to Human Relations (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
How do you tell a friend the truth and still be a good friend?

Well that's it hadjiboy, the truth. Good friends must be able to appreciate your truth.

From what you've written here sounds like your friend can handle it. I would hate to think of artistic criticism as betrayal.
posted by mattoxic at 2:49 AM on February 21, 2008

For me: it's a sign of a good friendship when somebody trusts me enough to tell me the truth even when it's not pleasant. The question should be, how could you possibly be a good friend if you didn't tell him the truth?
posted by emilyw at 2:51 AM on February 21, 2008

You did the right thing. I'm a musician and when I ask for people's opinions about my compositions or performances, I want brutal honesty.

This used to not be so, back when I wasn't confident about my own playing and what direction I was going in my career. Now that I believe in my own abilities, it's easier for me to listen to criticism and either decide, well this person has a different opinion/taste than I do, or, I really ought to change that because it's not coming across as I want it. It sounds like your friend feels this way as well and really just wants your honest opinion like he says.

Betrayal would have been lying to him about what you thought when he asked you for your honest opinion.
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 2:52 AM on February 21, 2008

You did not betray him. Of course it was right to tell him what you thought.

The difference between a friend and a stranger is that a friend knows you, but a stranger doesn't. The advantage a friend would have is to give his or her truthful opinion in a way for you to best understand it and not misinterpret it.

The best way to tell a friend the truth and still be a good friend is to say it in a clear, supportive, and positive way. This doesn't mean providing misleading comments, but supportive criticism, enough not to allow misunderstanding.
posted by mrbloo at 3:19 AM on February 21, 2008

Yes, you did the right thing. That's not to say that he won't feel a little uncomfortable about what he heard, because you never show anyone your work until you're convinced there's nothing you can do to make it better, and there's some inevitable irritation when you find out you're wrong, even if you kinda knew it (or you wouldn't have asked for advice). But that discomfort is part of the feedback process and is what'll make him follow your suggestions through and improve his work.

I've taken part in a few workshops recently where a group of us have offered feedback on one another's short screenplays, and a few tips we were given to soften the blow of criticism:

* Always start and end with a positive point.
* Never just say "I don't like x." If you have a criticism try and make a specific suggestion as to how to improve it.
* While you're delivering your feedback, the person you're speaking to has to sit in silence and not answer back until you've finished your whole spiel. This is *immensely* difficult for the critee (made-up word) because there's a constant desire to say "No... I didn't mean that, I meant this". But in the long run it really changes the dynamic in a positive way. They have to sit and absorb your comments as a whole, and don't have the opportunity to get overly defensive about specific points until you've made your final positive point. What then follows is a much more rounded discussion than you get if you launch straight into debate on each point as it arises.

Sounds like you probably did offer that kind of constructive advice though, and have nothing to worry about.
posted by penguin pie at 4:18 AM on February 21, 2008

Give him a criticism sandwich: Mention something you like, mention what you don't like, then end with something else you like. That way, the criticism is nestled between two toasty pieces of "they like it!" and can be quickly eaten for full nutritional value.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:32 AM on February 21, 2008 [3 favorites]

As long as you didn't say anything along the lines of "Woah, that was fucking shit! Wanna go for a beer?" (and you clearly didn't), then I think you did exactly the right thing. Friends want to hear the truth from friends, ie people you trust who have a valuable opinion to offer. Friendships not only survive this sort of thing, but grow stronger.

My 93 year old Great-Aunt recently published her autobiography and a year ago she asked me to read through the manuscript to see what I thought. Honestly the writing style annoyed me and I told her that I found it too chatty and a little bit annoying, but that as I wasn't the target audience then I didn't think it was a great problem. My dad was sat in the corner making crazy hand waving signs to me behind her back, telling me to shut up, but I said it anyway, and she wasn't in the slightest bit offended, or unhappy I'd said it.

To her eternal credit however, she completely ignored me, and published it in that exact chatty style and it's a great read (still a bit annoying though, but fuck, she's 93 and just written a book, in her second language, so I'll cut her some slack).
posted by jontyjago at 5:02 AM on February 21, 2008

"Criticism sandwich" - that's the ticket! Made with love and nutritional!
posted by From Bklyn at 5:50 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

The important thing with the feedback/criticism/shit sandwich is how you transition between the good & bad. Using words like 'but' & 'however' immediately put people on their guard to expect something negative.

e.g. 'I really liked the overall feel of the film but the characterisations weren't believable however I thought the ending was cool.' would be better as 'I really liked the overall feel of the film and you've put so much work into that. I wonder if the characterizations could be more believable. All in all it's great and the ending was very cool.

Ultimately, if you are going to be involved with anything that merits feedback, you have to learn how to take it and give it. People who say stuff like 'That was crap' don't really have much of an opinion worth listening to whereas those who can give a rounded critique do.

[I'm taking a practical teaching exam on Saturday and have to give feedback on the students' performance while I teach and then keep quiet whilst they give feedback on my teaching afterwards. Fun!]
posted by i_cola at 6:06 AM on February 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

No: "Doing it that way was bad."
Yes: "I wanted it to be this way." or "That was a good start, and to take it to the next level, I'd..."

"Mary is a neat character, and I really wanted to know more about why she was the way she was. Maybe you could add a minute or two of background...."

"The characters' relationships are what I got very interested in. I felt like I was watching two friends interact. To make that effect even stronger, you might go through the dialogue and look for places where ___ and consider changing it to be a bit more ___."
posted by salvia at 7:17 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all, this really takes a load off my mind. I went back and re-read my emails (we did this over the internet) and it looks like things weren't as bad as I thought they were.

I did use the positive-negative-positive approach, and was sure to let him know exactly why I thought certain scenes could've been better, and he replied by answering why he thought they were appropriate.
posted by hadjiboy at 7:41 AM on February 21, 2008

This is one of the aspects of friendship that gets easier over time. The longer you've been seeing this guy's films and giving him your opinions, the better you'll understand what kind of feedback he likes and how he reacts to different presentations of it. Everyone's different in that respect.

The Good-Bad-Good business is a solid starting point, though. If nothing else, it's pretty widely taught in creative writing and art classes (and, I'm assuming, probably in film too) as The Way to critique someone's work. So even if it's not his favorite, he'll be used to it.

But hell, just ask him next time — "Is there any kind of feedback you're especially looking for?" Can't hurt, might help. But either way, yeah, this'll get less awkward as the two of you do more of it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:51 AM on February 21, 2008

He probably is not oblivious about the weaknesses of his film. You probably told him about what he already knew.
You did good, it might have sting a bit but he'll get over it and he'll remember you can be trusted to objectively judge his work.
The thing is, if it really upsets him he would have defended his work against you, vehemently at that. The fact that he thanked you, means he already knew what you told him.
Specially if he's "not someone who's influenced by what other people think of him".
posted by SageLeVoid at 8:43 AM on February 21, 2008

Art school grad here. Grizzled crit vet.

The key is to be really, really specific. If you can pinpoint exactly what it is that doesn't work for you (remembering that this is subjective, he might disagree, and both opinions are valid), and why it doesn't work for you, and how it could be fixed, that's about as helpful as it gets.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:28 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Aside from the good-bad-good thing everyone has mentioned, I've always found that it's helpful to phrase the criticisms as my own personal opinion, rather than as fact. Maybe I thought a certain plot point was bad, but that's just what I thought, and it doesn't make that aspect of the work objectively bad. So I'd say "I was confused by X" rather than "X is confusing." I'd say "I would have liked more depth to character Y" rather than "Your portrayal of character Y is too shallow." I think it's a lot easier to take criticism when it's phrased this way, because it changes the question from "Is my work good or bad?" to "Is my work coming across as I intended?"

Still, this is a tough situation. I've made a habit of asking, when someone comes to me for opinions on their work, whether they're looking for advice or encouragement. Sometimes a person really wants tips to make their work better, and sometimes they just want someone to cheer them on. It's totally fair to clarify ahead of time which sort of feedback they're looking for. It's also a lot nicer if you ask this question before you see their work, so that it doesn't seem like you're asking permission to say the critical things you're already thinking.
posted by vytae at 9:37 AM on February 21, 2008

Since he responded by defending his work, you might want to add (in the future if not now) that you understand that this is his work, you just offering suggestions based on your own perspective and he is free to use them or ignore them as he wishes. (I know that is obvious, but sometimes I find it helpful to say it in some words.)
posted by metahawk at 9:44 AM on February 21, 2008

Seconding what vytae said. I find criticism is much easier to give and receive if you discuss the way it made you feel and what your reactions were, rather than trying to give an objective assessment of the artistic value. "I didn't like this bit because it reminded me of something else I don't like" or "I didn't believe the dialogue here". It makes it easier for the person receiving to place your feedback on their value scale. If they know you are a serious drama buff and you're complaining about believability in something that is intended to be fluff entertainment, they know they can safely disregard what you say.
posted by pschuegr at 12:31 PM on February 21, 2008

Response by poster: Funny you say that, because I was extra careful to mention that what I was stating were just my OPINIONS, and they could be wrong, because I might like certain things this way, and someone else some other way.

I don't think he was defending his work, so much as trying to help me understand where he was coming from, and that made the gesture all the more special to see that he valued my opinion enough to explain his view points, rather than just dismissing mine.

I still think I should've been a bit more tactful, maybe asked him, like one of the posters above has mentioned: would you like me to give you some sort of encouragement that you're looking for, or are you specifically looking for what I think would be flaws with the film, and then proceeded to give him my opinions.
posted by hadjiboy at 10:05 PM on February 21, 2008

Well, some people are more receptive to criticism than others. So feel that out before you get all brutal. When it comes to me, I find that constructive criticism- specifically, TELLING ME HOW TO FIX IT- is best. I loathe "I just thought it was boring, I hate so and so but I don't know why" stuff- I know it sucks, I don't know HOW and thus I feel like I broke my story below repair.

I just plain say NOTHING to certain friends of mine that can't take any sort of criticism, though.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:43 PM on February 22, 2008

This is a bit of a culture clash. Artists must be able to take criticism, or they're really just playing make-believe and will likely never better themselves or achieve much. This necessity of hearing criticism leads to a learned detachment and thick skin that is often lacking in the rest of society - which is where you are coming from - so you are worried that friends don't say to friends what you said. That is often very true, but your relationship that moment (should be) audience and artist, so I'd suggest that either you're in the clear, or he's not of the calibre you thought him to be.

I have the opposite problem; working around artists a lot, I sometimes forget that when someone outside that culture says "What do you think about my XYZ?", the last thing they want to hear is what I think of it :-)

As has been mentioned, a problem with this kind of audience feedback is that most people are not very practised at really drilling down on what things the liked or didn't like, and why. The more specific you can be, and able to explain why you reacted one way or another, the more valuable your feedback is.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:19 AM on February 25, 2008

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