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Three Ways to Assess Your Own Creative Work

Sketches by Leonardo

Photo by tj scenes

It’s notoriously difficult for artists and creatives to critique their own work – we put so much of ourselves into it, we find it hard to achieve the necessary critical detachment. As Flaubert said, ‘A book is essentially organic, part of ourselves. We tear a length of gut from our bellies and serve it up’.

Here are three basic strategies for getting some critical distance on your own work:

1. Distance in space

From Leonardo da Vinci’s advice to artists:

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. Again it is well that you should often leave off work and take a little relaxation, because when you come back to it you are a better judge; for sitting too close to a work may greatly deceive you. Again it is good to retire to a distance because the work looks smaller and your eye takes in more of it at a glance and sees more easily the lack of harmony and proportion in the limbs and colours of the objects.
(Leonardo da Vinci, Notebooks)

Sometimes it helps to completely change the environment where you experience the work. In the film 24 Hour Party People, the band Joy Division sit in their manager’s car to listen to their album for the first time, as this is how their audience will hear the songs on the radio.

2. Distance in time

As well as physical distance from the picture, Leonardo suggests that the artist take a break in order to come back “better able to judge”. Even a short interval of time can be enough to break the connection with your work and approach it afresh. Poet and novelist Maya Angelou uses a similar strategy, devoting mornings to writing a draft and evenings to editing it:

if April is the cruellest month, then eight o’clock at night is the cruellest hour, because that’s when I start to edit and all that pretty stuff I’ve written gets axed out. So if I’ve written 10 or 12 pages in six hours, it’ll end up as three or four if I’m lucky.
(from Creators on Creating, Ed. Frank Barron, Alfonso Montuori, Anthea Barron)

3. Seeing through others’ eyes

The easiest way to find out how your work looks to others is to ask them. Make sure you pick someone you can trust and whose opinion you respect. I’m currently attending a brilliant poetry workshop run by Mimi Khalvati, mainly because she has an almost supernatural ability to see to the heart of a poem, even in early draft form, and suggest unexpected ways of improving it. She doesn’t hold back if the writing isn’t up to scratch, but she does it so skilfully that even if she’s telling me to rewrite the whole thing I come out of the class feeling inspired and eager to get back to the writing.

If you aren’t able to consult your audience or respected critics, the next best thing is to use your imagination. Put yourself in their shoes – how does that feel? How does the world look through their eyes? How does the work look? What would they have to say about it?

How about you?

What strategies do you use for assessing your own creative work?

Creative Links – Giving Feedback on Creative Work

Giving feedback on creative work has been a hot topic here over the last few weeks. To wrap up the subject (for now) here are the links to my recent feedback posts plus a selection of other people’s words of wisdom on the subject.

The posts in my informal mini-series:

Tom Fishburne has some great cartoons in his ‘Brand Camp’ series, including the painfully funny 8 Types of Bad Creative Critics which appears at the top of the Brand Camp page on his site.

Ben at Noisy Decent Graphics posed a tricky question…

We see lots of students and junior designers here, people who’ve only been in the industry for a year or three. Students, graduates and freelancers.

Some of them are very good. Some of them are OK. Some of them are bad. Some of them are bloody awful. And there is the problem. Should we tell the awful ones they are awful? Should we tell the truth?

…which prompted plenty of entertaining comments.

Scamp looks at things from the other side of the fence, i.e. when and how do you present your creative work for criticism:

It concerns the age-old question… “when do you go in?” Do you wait until you have an idea that you would die on a sword for before you go in and see your creative director? Or do you go in when you have four or five ideas you like, and rely on him to pick the best one out – after all, “that’s his job”? Or do you go in with ‘just a few thoughts’, and aim to work with him on turning one of them into something good?

And Paul Colman gives the view from the client’s side of the fence (it’s triangular, trust me) in this thoughtful post about Evaluating and feeding back to creative work. Gavin Heaton at Servant of Chaos followed this up with his thoughts and an excellent Creative review checklist based on Paul’s post, to download and read through prior to giving feedback.

If you need to gather and co-ordinate feedback from different members of your project team, Tim Shih and his team at ReviewBasics have put together a comprehensive suite of tools for reviewing designs, documents, videos and other types of content. Digital content and distributed work teams are becoming more and more crucial to creative work these days, so this kind of tool could be invaluable for keeping projects on track and capturing (if not necessarily actioning) everyone’s feedback.

On the other hand, if you’ve had enough of all this creativity, Scott Berkun’s Idea Killers will be just the job for weeding out those irritating new shoots of inspiration.

EDIT: Scott Berkun has brought his article to my attention about How to give and receive criticism. It’s an excellent read, I particularly like his four fundamental assumptions of bad critics:

  1. There is one universal and objective measure of how good and bad anything is.
  2. That the critic is in sole possession of the skill for making these measurements.
  3. Anyone that doesn’t possess this skill (including the creator of the work) is an idiot and should be ridiculed.
  4. That valid criticisms can and should always be resolved.

Well, there it is. If you know of a good piece of writing about giving feedback on creativity (your own or someone else’s) please post the link in the comments.

6 Tips for Dealing with Feedback on Your Creative Work

Critics page

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?

What Seamus Heaney Taught Me About Giving Feedback

About 15 years ago I was lucky enough to have a one-to-one writing tutorial with the poet Seamus Heaney. This was before he won the Nobel Prize, but he was still an acknowledged superstar, someone whose poetry I had been reading and studying for years. So I felt pretty nervous as I sat waiting in the corridor with my manuscripts. When it was my turn, he ushered me in and patiently read through the three poems I had brought.

Obviously, my heart was in my mouth. It was so quiet I could hear him breathe.

Then he looked up with a smile on his face and picked up the first poem I had shown him. “If I were you,” he said, “I would have shown me this poem first as well”. He then went on to talk about what he liked about the first poem, enthusing about the promising bits and encouraging me as much as he could. Most of all, he got me to notice the points at which I was clearly enjoying myself, delighting in the words themselves, rather than hammering away at trying to get a ‘message’ across.

It was only gradually, through hints and asides, that he made it clear that the other two poems had virtually none of the redeeming features of the first one. But by that time I didn’t really mind, I was so pleased that he had found something he liked and was showing me how to improve it. He also mentioned in passing that he was currently accepting submissions for an anthology of student poetry.

Ever since then, whenever I’ve been asked to critique a poem (or other creative work) I’ve tried to follow his example: focus on what’s working and encourage the person to do more of that. The aim, of course, is to help the artist maintain their enthusiasm for the work while giving an honest judgment. If you’re lucky, they’ll take the hint. If not, you’ll need to be more direct about what doesn’t work.

Heaney made it easy for me. He was charming, tactful and funny, while making it very clear where my writing had some promise and where I was wasting my time. I left the room with renewed enthusiasm for writing and respect for the craft. Unfortunately, not everyone is so good at giving feedback. Whenever I think of this meeting, I also thank my lucky stars I wasn’t the young composer who asked the great Rossini to appraise his compositions. According to the story, after hearing the first piece Rossini said “You needn’t play any more. I prefer the other one”.

So what do you do when someone gives you ‘constructive criticism’ that sounds anything but? Or when you simply can’t see what they are talking about, and wonder whether you are both looking at the same work? Continuing the theme of at How not to give feedback on creative work and my 5 tips on giving feedback on creative work, my next post will look at how to deal with feedback constructively.

As for my poem, I took Heaney’s hint. I went back to my room and reworked it, addressing the (now glaring) weaknesses. By the time I had finished I was much happier with the poem and very grateful for his feedback. I was even more grateful when I received the letter saying he had accepted the poem for the anthology.

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5 Tips for Giving Feedback on Creative Work

My last post looked at How Not to Give Feedback on Creative Work, with an example of breathtaking clumsiness from the Emperor in Amadeus. To recap, this is how the Emperor made a pig’s ear of critiquing Mozart’s opera Il Seraglio:

  1. He offered a second-hand opinion
  2. He pretended to be an expert when he wasn’t
  3. He failed to provide any meaningful criteria for judgment
  4. He was tactless
  5. He was patronising

Let’s see what we can learn by reversing the Emperor’s mistakes.

1. Give your own opinion

The only person on this planet who sees things your way is you. Even if you are a novice surrounded by experts, there is still the possibility that you will have spotted something ‘obvious’ that no-one else has noticed. Don’t try to second-guess others’ opinions or be something you’re not.

If you’re not sure how your view will be received you could start with “This may sound silly but…” – it’s amazing how many times I’ve said that and found people nodding and agreeing.

2. Make your own role clear

If you are an expert in the medium, you are in a position to give a different kind of feedback than if you are not. Not necessarily better, just different. You will only irritate a professional if you try to intrude on their territory. But even if you are ‘only’ the manager, you are perfectly entitled to give feedback based on your knowledge of the client, the audience, the market and so on – as long as you make it clear in what capacity you are speaking.

I mentioned in my previous post that I know very little about graphic design, but am happy to give a ‘layman’s view’ of how a piece of design strikes me. If I’m asked to give my opinion on a poem however, it’s a completely different matter. This is a task I approach with relish and a completely different perspective – one of the reasons I enjoy writing poetry reviews. But this doesn’t guarantee that in any given situation my views on poetry will be more helpful than my views on design.

3. Be explicit about your criteria

Your criteria may be subjective, but at least you are providing a reference point for your judgment. Others are then free to challenge your judgment on its own terms or propose alternative criteria.

In his book Purple Cow Seth Godin tells the story of the adult focus groups who hated South Park because they found it offensive. In terms of their criterion (offensiveness) they were absolutely right – but fortunately the broadcasters realised that offensiveness was a key part of the programme’s appeal to its target audience – teenage boys.

Valid criteria can include: your own knowledge as a practitioner; the audience’s response; the client’s response; the brief; the market; the competition; money; time; practical issues.

4. Be honest, but not brutally honest

There’s no point fudging the issue if you really don’t like a piece of work or think it doesn’t meet the brief. But you don’t need to be brutally honest, especially if you will be working with them again and want them to do better next time.

Unless you’re a sadist, of course.

5. Support the person even if you can’t approve the work

Creativity is risky, so no-one can churn out a masterpiece every time. Wordsworth wrote reams of turgid poetry, Dylan and Bowie have made plenty of duff albums – but we forgive them because of the good stuff.

Remember, creative people identify very strongly with their work, so they are liable to take criticism personally. One of the most valuable things you can do for them is to give them your support and encouragement at a time of ‘failure’ – they will (usually) remember and try to repay your faith.

Well, there it is. I’ll write another post shortly on how to receive feedback on creative work.

Over to you…

What tips would you add to this list?

‘Too Many Notes’ – How Not to Give Feedback on Creative Work

Too many notes?

Giving feedback on creative work is a tricky challenge, for two main reasons:

  1. Artists and creatives identify very closely with their work
    When a creative worker puts a piece of work in front of you, it is as though they were putting a piece of themselves there to be judged – because of this, it is almost inevitable that they take criticism personally.
  2. The value of creative work is largely subjective
    We all know this from arguments with friends about music and films – one person’s masterpiece is utter rubbish to someone else. Shakespeare, Welles and Picasso are only ‘great’ because there is a current consensus of opinion that makes them so, and fashions can change. So it’s very difficult to make a final judgement with absolute certainty, no matter how strongly you feel about it.

But feedback is vital to producing outstanding work. Without some sense of how one’s work appears to others, it’s very hard to decide how to develop it. For Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, feedback is an essential ingredient in the experience of creative flow – when we sense that we are creating something valuable, it increases our pleasure and absorption in the work.

So feedback is essential, but how should we approach it? Specifically:

  • How can we give genuinely constructive feedback on a piece of creative work, even if we aren’t experts in the medium?
  • When we’re on the receiving end, how can we make the most of the feedback we receive from others – or at least develop a thicker skin?

‘Too many notes’ – the Emperor from ‘Amadeus’ shows us how not to do it

My favourite example of how not to give feedback on creative work is the Emperor Josef II of Austria, as he appears in Amadeus – a film I’ve previously written about as a parable of creativity.

The Emperor is not stupid, nor is he a philistine. He comes across as an intelligent and honest man trying to do his best for his subjects. And he aspires to culture, as an amateur musician and a lover and patron of music. The ‘musical King’ surrounds himself with composers and music scholars, patronises the opera, concert halls and music schools, and commissions exciting new works from established composers and rising stars.

And yet, as Salieri points out, “actually the man had no ear at all”. This is partly a deficiency of talent – regardless of the approach he took to musical studies, the Emperor would never be in danger of rivaling Mozart or Salieri. But it is also a deficiency of circumstance. Because of his position, the assembled musical experts around him are afraid to tell him where he’s going wrong, or even how bad his playing is. [Read more…]

Dealing with Difficult People

I once ran a business training with a team of on-the-road sales people. They were great – bright, enthusiastic, professional and likeable. We had a lot of fun and got a lot of work done. Almost inevitably, one of their requests was for help in ‘dealing with difficult people’. This one crops up in just about every training I run, it’s up there with ‘How do I find more time?’ and ‘How do I deliver negative feedback?’.

When I asked them what they meant, they described ‘the people at head office’, who sounded like they were on a mission to obstruct the sales team at every step – ‘bureaucratic’, ‘nit-picky’, and ‘difficult’ were some of the nicer words used. So we spent some time looking at ways to influence these people and minimise the interference.

Spot the grey area?

From the feedback I got in the post-seminar coaching sessions, the new options were helpful and they were able to spend less time arguing with administrators and more time improving their sales targets.

[Read more…]