Tag Archives: criticism

Seeking feedback

If you have any desire to create for other people, then getting feedback is an important part of the process. Initially it may be the case that all you can do is bring your efforts to the people who you want as your audience, and see what happens. As you grow and learn, your feedback needs are likely to change.

No matter where it comes from, the single most important consideration with feedback is whether you can use it. There are plenty of people who hand out unusable criticism. It’s very easy to rubbish something. People who have anything of value to offer are able to give criticism in a way that makes it possible to do something productive with it. If there’s nothing you can usefully do with feedback you were given, you might as well ignore it.

While general audience feedback is good, there’s a lot to be said for getting more qualified and relevant insight. There’s not much point fretting over what someone who considers themselves ‘literary’ thinks of your genre novel. Paying attention to feedback from people who are working in the same areas as you, or actively choosing to be an audience for the kinds of things you do makes a lot of sense. There’s no hope of making something everyone will like, so it’s important to be deliberate about who you are making things for. At which point you might as well not worry about the people who are not your intended audience. 

As a case in point, I’ve had a few Christians turn up on the blog wanting to convert me. I am not for them, and they are not for me. Christians I can have conversations with about spirituality, morality and service – for example – are always entirely welcome. We don’t have to agree on everything to learn from each other.

One of the most problematic kinds of feedback comes from people who will try and make your work exactly like their work. This is especially a problem when you’re starting out and trying to figure out who you are as a creator. When it comes from people with actual or apparent authority, it can be persuasive. Anyone giving you feedback should be helping you be yourself, not trying to turn you into them. Trust your own feelings in this – if you don’t feel that someone understands what you were trying to achieve, you don’t have to take their feedback onboard.

Being able to offer good advice often depends on having a skills set. A person telling me whether or not they liked something is unlikely to result in my knowing how to do better. This is why a lot of authors will have other authors who read and feed back to them. I’ve had the pleasure of doing this for other people, and I have several author friends who read for me. I also have some wonderful test readers with wider experience, whose insight I greatly value. It’s good to have people I can take things to, especially when I’m struggling with a piece – which happens to us all.

As a creator, you don’t owe time and attention to everyone. It’s not actually feasible, and the higher a profile you have the more time you’ll spend hearing from people with nothing useful to say. I follow a number of high profile authors on Twitter, and some of them get a startling amount of abuse. I’m very glad not to have to deal with that kind of attention and I respect the kind of courage it takes to keep showing up in face of that. No matter what you’re doing, believing in your own vision is vital. Find the people who share that vision, the people who are fellow travellers and who understand what you’re about. The world is a big place and social media makes it much easier than it used to be for those of us who are more niche.

Learning and criticism

The conventional wisdom is that to learn, you have to be open to robust criticism. I’ve been teaching various kinds of creative and spiritual things for a good twenty years now, and I’m increasingly convinced that the criticism approach doesn’t work that well.

What does work, is drawing people’s attention to their own successes. Tell someone what they do especially well, or what makes their work stand out. Tell them what you like about what they do, or where you can see progress. 

People who intend to learn and grow are often really harsh critics of their own work. They mostly don’t need other people to pick holes in it as well. If you’re in a position of being able to offer feedback, praising the stuff that works is really useful. It boosts and encourages the person, and you can learn a lot from hearing about what you are doing well. Criticism, on the other hand, can be demoralising, and if it doesn’t come with solid feedback about how to improve, it might not help a person in the slightest.

It is easier to rubbish someone than to lift them. It takes more skill and insight to feedback to a person about their strengths and very little insight to say ‘that’s crap’. Positive feedback boosts the other person, negative feedback does more to assert the authority and superiority of the person making the criticism. The idea that you have to be able to take harsh criticism to survive as a creative person can push out gentler and more sensitive people. 

The people who can take brutal criticism are often the ones who pay no attention to it. People not interested in learning from others or convinced that they have no need to develop can deal with harsh feedback by simply ignoring it. As a consequence, harsh criticism can mean selecting for people who ignore feedback at the expense of the people who genuinely wanted to learn and improve.

Unsolicited criticism can be really counterproductive, even when you’re in a teaching role. It can come across as asserting dominance and it can be more about the teacher’s ego than their being useful. Critical feedback is best given when it’s actually sought. If someone says ‘I’m not happy with this but I don’t know how to fix it’ that’s the time to come in and talk about what, technically can be improved on, and how. It’s also worth noting that if you don’t know how to improve something, you aren’t especially well qualified to comment on how good it is.

It’s also important when teaching or feeding back to recognise the difference between whether or not you like something and whether or not it is good. All too often, unsolicited harsh criticism is just people asserting that they don’t like a thing. Maybe it wasn’t made for you. It’s ok not to like a thing, but always worth thinking carefully about whether the person who created it needs to hear about that. Good critical feedback tells a person how to do a better job of the things they were doing. Useless feedback tells them that you wanted them to do something else. If you aren’t supporting a person to be themself, you aren’t supporting them at all.

Taking it personally

I’ve always been thin skinned. I’ve been told I take things too personally and that I over-react. This week it struck me that this isn’t a character flaw, it’s a coping mechanism.  I’m probably not alone in this.

If everything is going to be your fault, then being hypersensitive to criticism can help you catch problems before they escalate. If mistakes are punishable offences, you have to be hypervigilant around  criticism. What looks like being over-sensitive about things is an early warning system trying to detect threats before they get out of control.

This could easily become an issue for anyone with an abuse legacy, or who has had to survive in a toxic work environment. That thin skin is because you can’t afford to ignore any kind of negative feedback for fear of the consequences.

It has been a bit of a shock releasing that a large amount of how I respond to negativity is not necessarily who I am, but what I’ve learned to do in order to try and stay safe. I feel immensely threatened by criticism – and most of the time there’s no need. Most of the people I deal with will not punish me for real mistakes, much less ones they have imaged. Who would I be if I could take other people’s negativity in my stride? Who would I be if I wasn’t terrified every time I make a mistake?

It goes with the other coping mechanisms of over explaining and having to justify myself. It goes with having to check everything I do and feel to try and work out if it is reasonable and rational or not – and thus whether it might be permitted. Who would I be if I felt entitled to my own emotional responses and not like I had to be able to defend them?

Often, people who are thin skinned and easily upset are accused of being melodramatic and making it all about them. I’ve seen that one happen to other people as well as to me. I wonder how many other people who are knocked about by criticism react that way because it is a danger sign, a red flag, an ominous portent of far worse things to come?

I’m increasingly convinced that if someone seems to over-react, the key thing might be to focus on trying to make sure they feel safe. If you’re safe, you don’t have to be perfect in very possible way, you don’t have to psychically know what you were supposed to do without being told. When you are safe, another person’s bad mood or shitty day is not a danger sign, it’s just what’s going on. If you are with people who will not use you as a punch bag – literally or emotionally – then you don’t have to be hypersensitive to possible danger signs.

I may be becoming more resilient around this issue, because I have been safe enough for long enough for that to be possible.

Let me tell you what you’re really like

If we seek out a professional person, the probability is that we want them to tell us how they think things really are. That will include measurements of ourselves. We may also turn to friends, family and colleagues for feedback on how we’re doing. We might invite criticism. We’re allowed to do that. We’re also allowed to speak plainly if someone asks us to.

Misjudge, and an unsolicited compliment can be creepy, patronising, or even a put down. I’ve blogged about that here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2016/04/28/swimming-metaphorically-with-the-social-jellyfish/

However, what’s interesting to me at the moment is what happens when people feel the need to give unsolicited criticism. ‘Let me tell you what you’re really like’ is seldom the prelude to a compliment.

Shit happens. People make mistakes. Things go wrong. Most of us are dealing with this kind of thing in small ways on a daily basis. It’s important to identify what went wrong, it may be relevant to identify who was responsible or what could be changed to improve things.  When we’re focused on action, choices, behaviour even, we’re talking about things that can change. It’s not terrible to be told that something needs to be better or could be worked on. We’re all flawed and human and we all need to be able to talk to each other about these things.

However, it’s a very different business when we want to tell the other person who they are. You are this, you are that… It’s not a big problem with compliments – you are lovely, you are kind, you are considerate, you are generous, you are brilliant – most people don’t object to hearing things like this. You are useless, you are horrible, you are stupid, you are creepy – no one wants to hear this.  I’m not convinced it’s a helpful thing to do, either.

Firstly it makes the problem intrinsic, it doesn’t invite change or tell the person much about how they could change. ‘When you do this I find it difficult’ is more useful. ‘When you say X I feel Y’ can be a place to start a process. But when we say ‘you are’ in critical ways, it comes across as judgement and rejection. If you are terrible, how can there be scope for change?

If we talk about how we experience each other, there’s room to talk about why. Projection and historical baggage can so easily be part of the mix. We may use words in different ways, or have triggers or anxieties. If we can share what we experience, we can negotiate with each other, and learn to co-operate more effectively.

‘You are’ statements can be a form of power over. The person speaking has given themselves a status, an entitlement to label and categories the other person, to judge them, and to say what is going on. It puts all the responsibility for the situation onto the other person. It denies even the possibility of a problem being collective, not individual.

It’s not something I often do, but it is something I’ve done in states of rage on a few occasions. For me, it marks the end of a dialogue. It’s something that doesn’t come up often in my life, but that I’d like to handle more effectively. On the whole I think the only ‘you are’ statement I want to use henceforth in a critical way should go ‘you are not someone I can continue interacting with’ – give or take.

The desire to make someone understand an uncomfortable truth can, at the time, come from a place of wanting justice, recognition, or fair treatment. But in practice, when I’ve got to this point with someone, it’s because those things were entirely absent. There’s nothing I can say that will change anything. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction in dropping a truth-bomb like this before walking away, but how much good that really does anyone – myself included – I am uncertain.

Being vulnerable

There are limits on what you can do by playing safely. The person who does not want to expose themselves to risks doesn’t get much done. Any undertaking to do a thing, courts disaster. It gives us opportunities to fail, to be knocked back, humiliated, and made miserable.

I’ve been submitting works to publishers on and off for about fifteen years now. It doesn’t get easier. Granted, I now have more ‘yes’ letters than I did, but I still get a lot of rejections (mostly around short stories). Every time I send a piece in, even if it’s to a publisher I’ve worked with before, I’m acutely aware that ‘no’ is an option. It doesn’t stop there. Books get published, only for readers to hate them, and with the internet it’s really easy to take that hate to the author.
Putting things out in public invites criticism, and I’ve had some harsh ones over the years. One reviewer called an early piece of mine ‘repellent’ and that stayed with me. I don’t have a thick skin.

Bardic work means standing up in public and exposing your work, your inspiration, your soul, to scrutiny. Sometimes it goes wrong. The voice breaks. Words are forgotten. A string snaps. Someone in the audience undertakes to be rude. And again, it only gets slightly easier with practice, and performing always brings you into situations where people can really, seriously hate what you do.

Creativity is a very personal thing. A lot of self and soul goes into it, and not having that recognised and honoured can be agony. The cake that nobody liked and the epic cleaning job nobody noticed. The flowers that barely got a word of recognition, the ritual no one thanked you for… creativity is not just about obvious arty stuff, it’s about the making and the inspiration in all aspects of our lives. Sharing it makes you vulnerable. Not sharing isn’t an answer, because you remain untested, never confident you’re good enough, afraid of being knocked back, or of holding too high an opinion of yourself. We fantasies about the praise and applause, but it’s never enough. Imagining we could be good if only we dared becomes soul destroying itself after a while, just another delusion to cart about. No one respects the book you know you could write or the career you would have had if only…

So this week I answered some questions for OBOD about why I’d like to be a tutor for their course. I’ve exposed myself to being looked at, tested, considered by whatever means seems necessary or appropriate. Last time I did that (an editing job) I didn’t even hear back, not so much as a rejection letter. Well, I know the OBOD folk can and will do better than that.

The day I stop asking if I’m doing a good enough job, if I could do better, is probably going to be the day I stop breathing. The idea of resting on your laurels never made any sense to me. I always have to be pushing to do more, and better, on whatever terms I can. I don’t enjoy being tested, but it’s inevitable. The alternative is to create a little reality bubble in which I am the only person who judges what I do. Sure, that way I would never have to believe that anything I did needed work, but I wouldn’t improve much. I care more about doing things well than about being able to pretend to myself that I’m there already.

In the meantime, never under estimate the power of saying encouraging things and praising the stuff you love – the cake and the craft item, the story and the song.

Voices in our heads

Most of us hear voices. I don’t mean this in some kind of needing to take pills sense. It’s about the way in which we process, and often internalise the voices of other people. For example, a person who has grown up hearing that they are loved and valued, who has been treated with compassion and respect and encouraged to feel good about themselves, will probably hear a kind and helpful little voice. The voice that says ‘you can do this’. “You are worth it.” “You are lovely and you will pull through.” That kind of inner voice is incredibly sustaining, reinforces good self esteem and encourages feelings of hope even in hard times. It’s not proof against every setback, but it will give you a fighting chance. But what about the other voices? The ones that criticise and condemn. Now, we all hear plenty of criticism going through our lives, and we all need to be able to hear it, but every now and then, one of those comments gets in and sticks, and becomes part of the inner landscape. You are bound to fail. You cannot sing. You’re just an emotional blackmailer. You’re a waste of space. No one will ever love you. Things we fear may be true. Things too vague for us to readily disprove them. This kind of little voice can sit inside your head, eternally critical and demoralising. Forever undermining achievements, mocking emotions or otherwise eroding self esteem. Many people who seem compassionate with others, are veritable sadists when it comes to how they treat themselves. And it’s very much about what the inner voices are telling us to do. It’s worth taking some time to reflect on the voices you hear. The ones that turn up late at night, or that wait at the bottom of bottles, or that show up when things go wrong. The ones that snipe and destroy. Simply identifying them is helpful. Notice what they say and that this is not you saying it. The odds are you know perfectly well whose voice you have internalised. You may well remember when the words in question were thrown at you. What makes you think you’re so special? Why should anyone care what you think? It’s not your voice. It’s the voice of someone else. You’ve given it free bed and board. It may be that if you have the mental focus, you can tell it to pack and leave. Kick it out of your head space. Resisting the inner voices is otherwise a slow and painful process, and I think the only real answer is, keep recognising where it comes from, and keep resisting. Good criticism is helpful, it shows us something we need to know or learn and by acting on it, we have scope to grow and improve. “You got that specific thing wrong” is a door to learning how to get it right. The ones that haunt and hurt, tend not to be about specific mistakes, more a sense of being inherently a failure. The comments that suggest you are not capable of being good enough. The ones that say there is no hope, you might as well not even try. Save everyone the hassle, why don’t you? These will often come with the assertion that this is to help you, put you straight, save you from yourself. It’s hard to fight off someone who is convinced they’re doing you a big favour by knocking the illusions, pride, stupidity out of you. But that doesn’t make them right. None of us is made of fail. None of us is beyond hope of improvement. None of us is destined to cock everything up. If that sort of little voice has got inside your head, I’d like to offer you one magic word to use against it. It’s a potent word, and a powerful charm against that kind of destructive, abusive treatment. The word is ‘bullshit’. Try it. Say it out loud. Bullshit. When you hear the derogatory, rubbishing, unhelpful, you can never win comments, say it again. Bullshit. It will help.

The art of criticism

I’ve had private queries about the kind of feedback I’m looking for here, and we do get comments from some who clearly have no idea what productive criticism looks like so I thought it wouldn’t hurt to lay out my thoughts on the subject. As ever, your additions, critiques, questions and whatnot are very welcome.

I don’t personally find ‘constructive criticism’ all that helpful. By this I mean the kind of feedback where a person tells you what they think you could do to improve. There’s far too much subjective opinion in that process, and if the person providing the suggestions has totally different beliefs and objectives, the feedback can be worse than useless. On the other hand if someone says what they don’t like, and why, that’s really helpful. Equally, disagreements and reasons are very useful. I may not agree but it gives me a chance to understand. “That was a rubbish blog” is of little use. “That was a rubbish blog because you totally ignored what I think are the key issues,” is better. Tell me what the key issues are that I’ve missed, and we’re getting somewhere.

I write this blog for a number of reasons. Sometimes just for catharsis. Often to help me work through issues, or concepts that I am trying to understand. Always because I am interested in testing ideas on other people and getting responses. Of course it’s lovely when people agree with me and make warm affirming noises. But I don’t expect to get things right all the time and there is always more to any subject than I could hope to know about.

I love it when people add details, experiences, other philosophy that relates to what I’ve posted about – regardless of whether it agrees. Please, please keep these coming, they add so much and I have learned a lot from this feedback.

Please do ask questions. If something doesn’t make sense, or I’ve skimmed over an idea (inevitable really when writing small blog posts) then do poke me for more. I really enjoy writing to order, so if there are topics you’d like to see discussed, poke me, and if I can, I will. If you feel strongly about a subject and want to contribute your own post, then do get in touch. Email me, or leave a comment on the guest blogger’s page. I’m always very happy to post content from others, and if you want to express a radically different take to mine, this will be your best way of doing so.

If you know something that I don’t, and feel it casts a topic in a different light, do pile in. If you spot a logical inconsistency in my argument, comment! I want to know. If you think I’m biased, or prejudiced, or mistaken, say so, and don’t pull any punches. But do take the time to explain why, because that’s far more useful for anyone reading this blog, me included. If you disagree with my conclusions, please use the comment space to explain your own.

Where people are interested in thinking deeply and examining ideas, I welcome whatever comes, no matter how much you disagree with me. I am also open to being persuaded, (probably not in the sense of conversion to another religion entirely, but to other philosophical notions and viewpoints.) So, if your purpose is to share information and push for deeper understandings, if you are here to give, to interact, and if you don’t mind the risk of a strenuous conversation, then go for it.

I am only going to delete comments in extreme circumstances. Thus far I haven’t felt any need to – aside from the usual spam that has nothing to do with the blog. But I do believe in holding boundaries and in not encouraging people who enjoy making a nuisance of themselves. A judgement of what constitutes ‘nuisance’ will ultimately come down to me because I have control of and responsibility for this site, so it is no kind of democracy. However, the thing most likely to make me block, delete or ban is if other commenters express problems with comments. I know I am blessed with some very lovely people here who take the time to share. I want to cultivate the sense of community we have, I think, between people who blog, and comment on each other’s words. I’m not going to sacrifice that to the whims of any passing trolls.