Forging a Good Critique

“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another (Proverbs 27:17).”

When iron is sharpened, sparks fly. But just because we see sparks, we can’t assume the iron is sharper than before. It could just as easily suffer damage from an inexperienced hand. It takes a skilled craftsman to sharpen iron without destroying it.

Same goes for critiques. I know I’m only scratching the surface on the topic, I'd like to offer a few suggestions on how to tell a good critique from a poor one.

A good critique starts with a thorough understanding of the subject matter. If were going to critique something, it should be assumed that weve done our homework before setting pen to digital paper. There’s nothing to be gained from a critique based on sloppy, slanted, or inadequate research. Plus, who wants the reputation of being a hack?

A good critique will be conversant with primary sources, not relying on other critiques as their basis.

There are two kinds of questions people ask when confronted with something that they arent sure about:

Questions looking for informationseeking to understand. 

Questions looking for ammunition – seeking rant-fodder.

Just so it’s been said: A good critique asks questions to gain understanding. 

The false dichotomy is a sign of a bad critique. A false dichotomy is an exaggerated either/or scenario, where people are given only two diametrically opposed options to choose between. As a technique, the false dichotomy is manipulative – dirty pool, as it were – and should be avoided.

That means (a) don’t use false dichotomies, and (b) if you’re debating with someone who uses the technique to misrepresent you, walk away.  

A good critique follows the spirit of Matthew 18:15–17. The broader theme of Jesus teaching is that we're dealing with family members, not enemies (cf. Galatians 6:1). A good critique reads like a letter from an old friend who’s concerned about us. Its the attitude of a trusted friend sitting across the table in a coffeeshop or pub, loving us enough to ask the hard questions, and listening to whats on our hearts. 

A good critique is capable of seeing the good as well as sounding the alarm about potential problems. Wounds from a friend can be trusted (Proverbs 27:6). 

A good critique may sting at timeswe see through a glass darkly, after allbut if the underlying attitude is one of redemptive friendship, a good critique will sharpen and strengthen us. 

We’ll thank you, and – in a perfect world – pay for your coffee/beer.

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