How do you give and receive constructive criticism?Growing up, I wrote almost as much as I read. I kept notebooks full of stories, stuffing them into my backpack to take them to school and type them on the computers. Invariably, anyone and everyone who read anything I wrote between birth and age 16 said something like, “Wow, that’s really good!”

What was that about everyone being a critic?

After tenth grade, I found myself heading off to Susquehanna University (my future alma mater) for a week-long Writers Workshop, conducted as part of Susquehanna’s nationally recognized Writers Institute.

During that one summer week, I learned a tremendous amount about writing and myself as a writer from Drs. Gary Fincke and Tom Bailey. The most important lesson for me, as a fairly sensitive person, was in regards to constructive criticism.

When you’ve spent your entire life being told what a great writer you are, it can take the wind right out of your sails when someone tells you otherwise (especially the first time). I would go on to attend the Writers Workshop again the following summer, and, upon enrolling as an undergrad at Susquehanna, declare writing as my first minor. But that first lesson in constructive criticism has stuck with me.

Whether you’re writing creatively, for academia, or blogs, one of the most important aspects of writing is often overlooked: the ability to give and receive constructive criticism.

If you know providing such constructive feedback isn’t your forte, you’re not sure if you’re doing it well, or you just want a refresher, you’re in luck! I have some tips and examples for you.

Giving Constructive Criticism

  • Understand that “just being nice” isn’t always helpful. If you read something that’s seriously terrible and you know that, but you smile and say, “Wow, this is really great!” you aren’t doing that writer any favors. Help the writer see where changes should be made.
  • Please never just say “it’s good” or “I liked it.” Okay, I’m glad… but what made it good? Why did you like it? I need a little bit more feedback. And that includes what you didn’t like. In fact…
  • What you don’t like is probably the most valuable information. What is it about this piece that you don’t like? For example, “the voice didn’t seem very authentic,” or “I just don’t feel like this part fits in with the rest of the post.” Help me see where I can improve. That’s important, so let me say it again.
  • Help the writer see where he or she can improve. There is no such thing as a perfect first draft. Even thoroughly edited final drafts are often not without their faults. Speak up and let the writer know what you think.
  • Be tactful. There is a line (and it’s often a fine one) between providing constructive criticism and bashing someone’s work. Constructive criticism will be helpful, tactful and polite, though firm when it needs to be. Mind your tone (and how it could be perceived).
  • Balance the bad with the good. For every criticism you have, make it constructive by offering up something positive as well. “I’m not sure I really understand why you included this XYZ piece of information, but you made excellent points on ABC and DEF.”

Receiving Constructive Criticism

  • Remember that you are not your work. Just because I don’t like your outfit or your taste in music doesn’t mean that I don’t like you as a person. Likewise, just because someone doesn’t like something you’ve written, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you.
  • Understand that not everyone is going to love everything. Sometimes a blog post or anything else you can create just might not be a winner. Don’t let that discourage you from trying it (whatever it is) again.
  • Prompt the critic. When you ask for someone’s opinion, they might not always know how to give constructive criticism. If they say something like, “that’s good,” ask them why they liked it. Ask them where they think you can improve or what they found confusing. The more you prompt them, the more likely you’ll get the information you need (and the more likely they are to provide this information to you up front in the future since they know what you’re looking for).
  • Don’t retaliate. Set an example. If someone gives you bad feedback, your instinct might be to rip them apart when it’s your turn. Resist that urge. Instead, set an example for what constructive criticism looks like. Show ‘em how it’s done. Be diplomatic and positive.
  • Listen completely before you defend. Hear your reader out. When they’ve finished, offer up some explanation or defense of your work. Be careful not to be too defensive or make them feel like you don’t value their opinion (especially if you asked for it).
  • Remember that you are the author. In the end, it’s your work. You need to be happy with it. So while you can consider all of the feedback and constructive criticism you receive, you’re ultimately the one who decides whether or not to accept it.

What constructive criticism tips would you add? Do you think it’s valuable to understand how to give and receive this type of feedback?

Image source: alvimann/morgueFile