A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.
When was the last time you got negative feedback?
You’ve probably had comments on your writing, cooking, driving, or that shirt only you like. It doesn’t feel good.
Feedback is crucial to improvement. You only know what needs to change by assessing what does or doesn’t work.
Creative work of any kind exposes you to one-star reviews, lack of engagement, negative or offensive comments. You hoped for praise but got something unpleasant instead.
Alternatively, you might be working with a mentor or in a group of your peers, and actively seeking constructive comments.
You know feedback is a good thing. But do you always want it?
Candy or Broccoli?
Writers crave good feedback. You want to hear how much readers loved your characters, plot, and description. Positive feedback (I loved this!) feels good, but like eating candy, it isn’t nourishing on its own.
But despite the supposed benefits, we’re less keen on hearing negatives. Like broccoli or high fibre cereal, we know it’s good for us but it doesn’t taste good.
Negative feedback cuts to the heart of your self-esteem. If you’re too closely identified with your work (writing is my life rather than writing is something I do) criticism of your work feels like criticism of your core self. Then you attack in self-defence — either the critic or yourself. Both options are painful.
Reviews and comments are an accepted part of life. The only way to avoid them is never showing your work.
Fighters work with a sparring partner to build their strength and skills. Ask for help from a trusted source. Each time someone points out a defect is an opportunity to learn and do better next time. Take feedback on the chin and emerge with your self-esteem intact.
There are ways to make feedback both palatable and useful, whether it was invited or not.
Here To Help
The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.
Norman Vincent Peale
Constructive critique is aimed at the work.
It is factual. It focuses on objective measures using rational language.
Destructive critique is aimed at the creator.
It is opinion given in emotive language. It may not be relevant to the work at hand. It is personal.
What does constructive critique look like?
- Timely — ideally given soon after the event
- Focused — limited to one or two points
- Objective — factual, uses respectful language
- Specific — gives examples
- Actionable — suggests targeted remedies
What complete rubbish. You’re useless, my ten year old could do better than this.
I enjoyed the story but found this hard to read. The sentences and paragraphs were very long and it looked like a solid wall of text.
Consider having one idea per sentence and three sentences per paragraph. That gives more white space on the screen, which is easier to read.
The first example is pure negative opinion and offers no useful insight.
The second example avoids insults and emotive language and suggests remedies.
Whether you choose to take the advice depends on the source and the quality of the suggestion. But it gives you something to work with. The new version might work better or not suit your style. Either way, you know more than before, and can make more informed choices in your next piece.
Take It On The Chin
- Allow time for strong emotions to settle
- Look for a kernel of truth, no matter how small or hard to accept
- Consider the alternatives presented
- Be open to trying another way, even if you reject it in the end
- If you decide to maintain your current position, know why
- Thank your critique partner for their time and attention
Not every comment deserves a response. Sometimes you just note it and move on. Remember you are in charge of your words. You don’t have to accept all of the critiques or make all suggested changes. However, review from another source can be invaluable in showing a reader’s view, which you as the author cannot experience.
Put Up Your Guard
Endless negativity, especially if mixed with personal attack and vitriol, says more about the commenter than the work.
The internet is full of people whose comments consist only of slurs and insults. Sometimes they start by being pleasant and complementary; when you take the bait they switch to attack. Being targeted by an online and probably anonymous bully is a painful and upsetting experience. The answer is simple; don’t feed the trolls.
Don’t respond or engage in a flame war. Don’t stoop to their level.
You risk hurting your brand among observers, as a reputation is hard to build but easy to destroy. And you open yourself to a stream of negative feelings that persist long after the encounter.
You can close comments, mute, block or unfollow, depending on the platform. Often silence is the best response.
Open Your Mind
A common response to critique is to become defensive or aggressive.
I worked all night on that and you didn’t even give me any credit so what’s the point?
Well, what do you know anyway? I’ve got a postgraduate degree in X so I think I know what I’m talking about.
A good sparring partner exposes your weaker areas without attacking them outright. You wouldn’t spar when angry; it could turn into an ugly fight.
It might take some time to process the emotional hit, so take a breath. Remember that you’re here to learn. Nobody is perfect. Everyone can improve.
Learn to Love The Pain
The pain of discipline is nothing like the pain of disappointment.
Exposing yourself to feedback more often is the best way to increase your tolerance of it.
No creative is immune to the sinking feeling when they see just how many changes they need to make to a piece. You’re allowed to feel bad about it as long as you keep the end goal in mind. Constructive critique builds the strength to do better work.
You Are Not Your Work
You put something of yourself into your creation, but please separate your sense of self from the thing you made. Critique of your work does not lessen your worth as a person. When you truly accept this, feedback is much easier to handle. Make another, a better piece using what you’ve learned.
You are not your work.
Everyone’s a Critic
Those who talk should do and only those who do should talk.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Skin in the Game
Dishing out negative reviews is easy. Giving useful critique isn’t easy. Like all good teaching, producing insightful analysis and actionable suggestions is harder than it looks.
So try writing a good critique by swapping with someone else. There are websites where you can submit your work for review, and earn credits by doing the same for others. It’s the tough love version of karma.
Follow the golden rule; be respectful.
Sharpen your critical skills, but not at someone else’s expense. Read other reviews to learn how to phrase your suggestions if you’re unsure. Even when you have points to make, imagine how your words would feel if you were receiving them. Empathy does not prevent you from being honest.
Whether you’re dishing it out or taking it, constructive feedback is central to your improvement and eventual success. You can learn to like broccoli. And dessert always tastes better after you’ve eaten your greens.