There’s an art to listening to criticism or praise of your work without getting carried away by elation or despair – and let’s face it, without stomping off in a huff. Having looked at How not to give feedback on creative work, 5 tips for giving feedback on creative work and what Seamus Heaney taught me about giving feedback, it’s time to look at what it’s like to be on the receiving end of all this constructive criticism.
This has been a hot topic for me this year, as I’ve been attending Mimi Khalvati‘s advanced poetry workshop at the Poetry School. Feedback is my main motivation for doing the class – not only is Mimi one of the most sensitive and helpful readers of a poem I’ve ever come across, but the class is full of talented and experienced poets, who always offer insightful critiques of the poems on offer. And the thing is, it’s usually much easier to appreciate this while we’re discussing other people’s poems. As long as we’re looking at someone else’s words, it’s easy to see the aptness of the comments and the usefulness of the suggestions.
But when it’s my poem on the table, it’s a different matter.
Now, I’ve worked with hundreds of artists and creatives on how to deal with feedback and respond to it constructively. I know I shouldn’t take it too personally and remember that the comments are about the work, not about me. Obviously.
But that doesn’t stop my heart being in my mouth when I stop reading and wait for the first response.
And it doesn’t stop that little voice that sometimes starts up in my head, that wonders “Why did you read out such a load of rubbish, no wonder they’re sitting they’re in silence they’re embarrassed at how bad it is and wouldn’t you be I mean what can you say about a poem that etc etc”.
It really feels like a lottery. Sometimes I’m pretty sure there’s at least one good stanza in the poem, and it’s almost comical how often that turns out to be the utter rubbish, while the one bit I was on the verge of cutting at the last minute turns out to be the best thing in it, the bit that’s crying out to be centre stage and needs to be given more space.
Occasionally, a poem comes through unscathed, apart from a few minor tweaks – and I feel like Buster Keaton when the house has fallen on top of him, leaving him standing with a window-frame around his feet.
The thing is, it’s phenomenally hard to get enough distance on your own work to assess it anything like objectively, and to make meaningful judgments on how to develop it into the finished article. Arguably that’s the difference between a real artist and an amateur. Writing looks a pretty solitary activity, at least in comparison to making things like feature films or computer games, but it’s interesting to note how many successful writers have been members of a tightly knit group of fellow-writers, who were fiercely supportive of each other and fiercely critical of each other’s work.
And arguably, we writers have it easy compared to creatives in an agency or studio. At least we have the luxury of deciding where we get our feedback. We don’t have clients who have never written a word in their lives tearing our work to shreds. We’ve never been asked to “make the logo bigger” or heard the magic words “I’ll know it when I see it”.
So if you’re ever faced with unexpected or unwelcome feedback, here are a few tips for deciding what to do with it:
1. Don’t just dismiss it!
One of my pet hates in writing classes is when someone reads their work, scowls through the (usually) well-intentioned and insightful comments, and then shrugs and says “I guess I just write for myself”. When obviously they don’t, or they wouldn’t have shown it to the rest of us. You might not like the feedback – but being purely selfish about it, you owe it to yourself to consider whether there is anything in it. You can dismiss the feedback, but don’t dismiss it without considering it.
2. Remember who is speaking
Different people are qualified to give different kinds of feedback. Always bear in mind who they are, and what perspective they are coming from. Are these the kind of people you are trying to reach with your work? If so, you should be all ears for what they have to say. If not, you may decide their viewpoint is irrelevant.
In some ways it’s easier to accept criticism from a fellow professional, and it’s tempting to value their praise more than that of others. But a ‘naive’ reader or observer can often show you something the experts might miss. And most of us aren’t just creating for our peers – we want our work to make an impression on everyone who encounters it. If we’re happy to accept praise from any quarter, we should be prepared for the catcalls from the cheap seats.
3. Listen for the criteria
Disagreements often arise because of different criteria for judgment. The classic example is the creative team who want to produce something edgy and remarkable, while the client wants something safer and more predictable. If they can’t agree on the criteria, they will never agree on the work, so the first thing is to establish the criteria people are using to judge your work. Once you have done that, you can decided (a) do I consider these valid criteria? and (b) if so, are they right in their assessment of whether the work meets these criteria?
If you’re lucky they will make their criteria for judgment clear. If not, you might have to infer them or have a conversation to establish them. “Make the logo bigger” might mean “I’m not sure how this will help my company – will people really get the message by looking at this image?”. “I’ll know it when I see it” means “I don’t have any criteria” – so you need to define some quickly or (if possible) walk away.
4. Be honest with yourself
Whether or not they express the feedback well, ask yourself whether there’s something in it or not. You don’t have to be graceful about it, or even acknowledge it publicly. But deep inside, there’s a part of you that knows whether there’s something not right with the work – check in with that part and see what feeling you get from it.
5. Don’t take it personally
Yes I know, this is easier said than done. You put your heart and soul into your work, it’s hard to pretend you haven’t. As Flaubert said, “A book is essentially organic, part of ourselves. We tear a length of gut from our bellies and serve it up”. Yet if we are really serious about our work, we have to learn to step back from it and see it more objectively. Leonardo puts it better than I can:
We know very well that errors are better recognized in the works of others than in our own; and often by reproving little faults in others, we may ignore great ones in ourselves… I say that when you paint you should have a flat mirror and often look at your work as reflected in it, when you will see it reversed, and it will appear to you like some other painter’s work, so you will be better able to judge of its faults than in any other way.
(Leonardo da Vinci, Notebooks)
6. If you don’t get the feedback you need, look for it!
Note I said ‘need’ not ‘want’. If you’re only after praise, it doesn’t really matter where you look for it. But if you really want to get better at your art, you need to find someone who knows what they are talking about, who will give you an honest appraisal of your work. It could be a teacher, a mentor, a famous practitioner, your peers, an editor, an agent – or all of them. So if you’ve not found those people yet, keep looking.
Well, there it is.
How about you? How do you deal with feedback on your creative work? Has feedback ever helped you make a dramatic improvement?