Thursday, August 24, 2017

Giving and Receiving Criticism: It's Not Just for Writers

Admit it. You don't like to be criticized. No, this isn't a criticism, so don't get defensive and close the browser. It's just a fact. No one likes to be criticized. 

As a writer, though, constructive criticism is the best way to improve. As a person, it's important, too. Whether we're trying to perfect our cupcake recipe, become a better friend, or write the next masterpiece, we could all benefit from learning how to give and receive criticism. 

Learn to give constructive feedback.

When you’re giving feedback, it’s easy to focus on the problems. After all, you want to help the other person improve. Only saying nice things might stroke someone's ego, but it won't lead to improvement. You're saying all that mean stuff out of the kindness of your heart. 

But while all positive feedback is unhelpful, all negative feedback is just as bad, especially if you're unnecessarily harsh about it. 

Too much negativity can make people defensive. As writers, we might decide the critiquer is an idiot who doesn’t get our genius, because the alternative—that we’re really that bad—is too hard to accept. Or we will accept that we’re awful, and we’ll want to give up. Either way, we’re not encouraged to improve. 

Outside of writing, people are likely to react in the same basic ways. They'll either get angry or sad, and neither state is very productive.

So how should we give constructive feedback?

I’m a firm believer in the compliment sandwich. Point out something good, then something bad, and then something good again. This way, people will feel that they're doing okay and will be motivated to do even better.

You don’t always have to use this exact order, but you should strive for some balance. You should also make the compliments sincere. 

The compliments serve another purpose beyond the ego boost, too. It actually is helpful to know what we’re doing right. We need to know when something is working so we can keep doing it.

Learn to receive feedback.

If you feel yourself getting defensive when you get negative feedback, don’t worry. A little defensiveness is a natural human reaction.

This is no excuse for rudeness, though, especially when people are trying to help you.

The key is to avoid responding too quickly. Don’t try to defend yourself. Instead, say thanks, and give yourself some time to think about the feedback you’ve received.

This doesn't mean you can never respond. Sometimes it's helpful to discuss the issue in more depthto point out concerns you've had, to look at different solutions, or to request more detailed feedback. 

But even the most thick-skinned of us can get defensive from time to time. If you feel this happening, say thanks, and then be quiet. 

Remember, you’re under no obligation to take anyone's advice. You should still thank the well-meaning person for giving it to you. 

You can’t please everyone.

As any writer knows, if you give your manuscript to ten different people, you’re going to get ten different reactions, and some of the advice you receive is bound to be contradictory. One person might tell you the pacing is perfect but the characters are flat. Another person might tell you the character are great but the story lags.

So how do you know who to believe?

On the rare event that readers actually give you the same feedback, take it to heart. You don’t have to do exactly what they suggest, but you should accept that they've identified a real problem. Likewise, if everyone's telling you that you interrupt too much or your cookies are too saltyyou probably want to heed this advice, too. 

When people don't agree, it’s your story, your life, so learn to trust your gut. Whose advice resonates with you? That’s probably the person you should listen to the most.

Also keep in mind that not all advice is equal. 

Sometimes I read reviews of books that, while honest, have more to do with the reviewer than the book. Did a reader complain that your horror novel is too scary? Or that you romance focuses too much on the love story? Maybe one guy doesn't like the main character because you named her Erin, and he's never met an Erin he didn't hate. 

No matter how amazing a book is, some people won’t like it. Just look at Goodreads for proof. I adore Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, but it currently has 24,965 one-star reviews. That's a lot of people who disagree with me. 

Likewise, you can make the best guacamole in the world, but some people just don't like avocado. (Me, for instance.) And no matter how awesome you are, there will be people who just don't care to be your friend.

You can’t please everyone. Don’t try to.