Deconstructing Constructive Criticism and Praise

Many years ago, I took Tae Kwon Do lessons from Grandmaster Don Wong Kang. I was not exactly one of his success stories; I was more curious about martial arts than motivated. But I did learn a mean sidekick and survived long enough to earn a yellow belt. More to the point, I learned from him something even more valuable, as a writer: When someone takes the time to correct you, or to give you constructive criticism, you should not take it as an insult, but rather as a gift. Each of us has a finite amount of time on this earth; that person has just spent minutes, hours, days, or more of their own precious life to help you improve and do better in yours. It’s a gift of time, knowledge, and expertise.

Granted, that was the 1980s and Internet trolls hadn’t been invented yet. But I believe this is true of most people. They mean well, even if their criticism stings. They have spent time out of their own lives to give it; if they don’t mean well, then the joke’s on them.

Too much praise – particularly when constructive criticism is what’s needed – can have unintended, negative effects. Think back to the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. The “innocent child” is the most honest critic (as children often are!), and the emperor – swindled and duped – has little choice but to stand up straighter and move forward. Doubtless, he has learned valuable lessons about honesty and trust. They will serve him well. He doesn’t crumple or yell “Off with their heads!” and he doesn’t wail and moan and throw his crown to the ground, but one can imagine that he later hires the child as Chief Fashion Designer or Head of the Royal Fraud Investigative Service.

When we receive criticism, it pays to consider the source. For writers of fiction, the most valuable criticism comes from readers – not colleagues, literary experts, professors, or book critics, but from our “target audience.” And it pays to remember that “readers” is a large group of people having widely varied tastes in what they read; they may be reading a classic work of literature in the living room; a romance in the bedroom; and a cheeky vampire thriller in the bathroom – all on the same day. They generally have one thing in common, if they’re honest about it: They want to be lifted out of their own daily routine for a few hours and whisked away into a book. Good storytelling goes hand in hand with excellent writing and editing; neither matters much if the other element is missing. A good story can be destroyed by poor spelling and grammar, but even impeccable writing cannot fix a boring, monotonous story.

For writers of non-fiction, the first most valuable criticism comes from experts in the field, who will judge its accuracy, then from readers whose aim was to learn new facts or skills. How well they are able to accomplish their goals is the measure of how well the author met their own objectives.

For poets, it’s a bit more like abstract art. Some will see the vision, hear the music, share the moment with the poet; some never will. Poetry is the universal made personal – or the personal, made universal. Poetry that is merely the evisceration of the poet’s soul in public takes on the quality of a train wreck; poetry that reduces universal truths to trite, rhyming verse is cringe-worthy. Everything in between is a matter of skill in balancing the lilting notes of language with form, meter, and rhyme; its “success” overall becomes a matter of whether it grabs a reader by the head, the heart, or the soul and drives a glimmer of human experience home.

This is where learning to value constructive criticism and compliments comes into play: We must learn to identify and take from them what rings true and discard the rest (along with our hurt feelings about it or the momentary ego-puffery it gives us). It’s equally important that we learn how to accept praise – to enjoy it thoroughly, say “thank you!” and move on. Every blogger knows the value of a comment that says nothing more than, “Great post!” A few words of casual praise require little time and less effort. Few of us hate a little pat on the back if it comes from friends. But praise is valuable feedback only if we learn from it what we did right; the more specific the positive feedback, the more useful it is.

According to the Harvard Business Review, it has been shown that teams perform better when their leaders give them more praise than criticism. This appears to be the case for married couples, and there is no reason to think that writers or athletes or politicians or our next door neighbors would be any different. We are all human. The ideal ratio is about five positive statements to every critical statement. It is just as important – or maybe even more so, according to these studies, to know what we should keep on doing as it is to know what we need to change or stop doing.

Some people are adept at providing this kind of feedback, but most of us struggle with it. We tend to focus on the few things that really stood out to us – good or bad – and ignore the parts that we may have even skimmed over. Rather than try to turn everyone into a professional critic, my goal is to remind all of us to take all criticism as objectively as possible. Don’t argue with someone over their honest opinion. Say “thank you for sharing that with me,” even if they were critical. Use what you can use; let go of the rest. And poets – all artists – especially, beware: In trying to revise a poem or a work of art to please one critic, you may fix one aspect of it but, in the process, lose the essence of what makes it good. There isn’t a lot of room for error. Ask lots of questions of anyone willing to spend their precious life minutes to help you. Then try it from different angles; get more feedback. Never crumple up the original and throw it into the trash.
 
 
 


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HollyJahangiri

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at http://amazon.com/author/hollyjahangiri. For more information on her children's books, please visit http://jahangiri.us/books.
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18 thoughts on “Deconstructing Constructive Criticism and Praise”

  1. Great post, as always. Some useful takeaways, all through. I especially like “don’t argue.” If somebody says something didn’t work for them, you can’t persuade them that it DID. But, as you also point out, questioning them about their reaction CAN help you refine the writing so it DOES work.

    You get a gold star for this one. ๐Ÿ™‚
    Marian Allen recently posted…Pep Talk at the #NaNo 1-Week Mark #amwritingMy Profile

  2. One of your best essays! Especially this:
    “Never crumple up the original and throw it into the trash.”

    You sorta half missed one bit: Some critics are good critics, others are not. Some compliments are good and some are not. Basically it would be useful if one could “evaluate the quality” of a compliment or critique. And of course: You cannot please all the people all the time. So please the ones you can.

    Marian’s comment was one heckova good one.

    1. No, I did not miss that one bit. You see, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Sure, some articulate it better than others and some provide more specific, actionable feedback than others. But I’m not going to say that there are “good critics” and “bad critics” – that’s irrelevant unless you’re a PROFESSIONAL critic, and then your employer can make that determination of value. This is why I urge the recipient to “use what they can – use what rings true – and simply say thank you and ignore the rest.” You may be wrong in what you discard, but you’ll be true to yourself and that does matter. YOUR customers may agree or disagree with your choices. But in the end, they are YOUR CHOICES. Say you have ten people giving their feedback. Seven mention pacing being too slow. That’s probably a problem. One says they’re turned off by some quirk of the protagonist; it annoys them. That MAY be a problem, but if 8 people thought that quirk was funny or relatable, you may not want to change it. If everyone thinks your sex scene is too graphic and not a turn on, then you should rethink that. And the more specifically they can describe what they like or dislike, the better. But even that one person represents 10% of your audience, potentially. So don’t ARGUE. Just make choices.
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Deconstructing Constructive Criticism and PraiseMy Profile

      1. You missed the intent of my comment.
        A good critiquer, is someone who offers something an author, artist, SOMEBODY can use. “I liked it.” Nice, but no why. “The lead character sucks.” Ok…. No why again. And there would be better ways to say it, I guess.

        As for professional critics, well today, with FB, Tumblr, Yahoo, Twitter, Yelp, online surveys, and so on… We are ALL sorta semi professional critics! (Most people not being of any use!)

        Nailed this one you did:
        It needs to be shared!
        This is why I urge the recipient to โ€œuse what they can โ€“ use what rings true โ€“ and simply say thank you and ignore the rest.โ€ You may be wrong in what you discard, but youโ€™ll be true to yourself and that does matter. YOUR customers may agree or disagree with your choices. But in the end, they are YOUR CHOICES. Say you have ten people giving their feedback. Seven mention pacing being too slow. Thatโ€™s probably a problem. One says theyโ€™re turned off by some quirk of the protagonist; it annoys them. That MAY be a problem, but if 8 people thought that quirk was funny or relatable, you may not want to change it. If everyone thinks your sex scene is too graphic and not a turn on, then you should rethink that. And the more specifically they can describe what they like or dislike, the better. But even that one person represents 10% of your audience, potentially. So donโ€™t ARGUE. Just make choices.

        I wonder if I could tweet this url, or FB or G+ it, if the whole article replies and all would show up?

        Cause the other comments are smoking hot, too!

  3. I was fortunate to have some great teachers both in academia and business in my life and was also fortunate in that I had the sense to learn from them. Among the many valuable lessons that I learnt from them was the ability to teach too. Throughout my later life at the top executive levels and post retirement as a mentor, this has stood me in good stead and given some very exciting associations.

    Eliciting feedback itself is a knack that many teachers do not have and do not bother to spend time on. This is part of the reasons that many students of business seek counseling from people like me. In India, after class coaching classes do more to prepare students than regular classes in schools and institutions. Motives can be questioned, but it is a sad commentary on the system that this is so.
    Rummuser recently posted…Mr. & Mrs. Iyer.My Profile

    1. This may be true, here, too. Whether it’s after school coaching, mentoring, or just good parenting, much learning happens outside of school. (And just as with the Internet, you can learn everything outside of school if you can read – provided you don’t much care if it’s correct.) This isn’t a bad thing, though – to seek other teachers, to read, to realize that much of the learning in life isn’t spoon fed to us in a classroom, but has to be sought and worked at until the day we die.

      To me, the point of teaching is to help guide learners to good sources of information, help them to distinguish fact from fiction, and exercise their ability to think critically. I always shared my opinions (strong ones, often as not) with my kids – BUT, unlike many parents, told them to do their own research and question or challenge me if they found holes in my thinking. How many parents do that? How many parents are willing to admit they’re wrong, or to apologize to their own children if they do something they shouldn’t? I had good role models in this, but I see most kids don’t.

      By extension of that idea, I think that people who don’t allow their children to question or challenge what they think they know and believe may start to slide into this mindset where they think they know better than anyone who hasn’t lived as long as they have. But just as I learned, at 21, that not all older people were smarter than me, I think we older people need to acknowledge what young people bring to the table – new information and experiences and culture shifts, among other things. And if we teach them well from the start, they’ll share these things with us – respectfully – and we’ll build on that together.
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Punctuation Check-up: The Doctor Will See You NowMy Profile

  4. You sure you didn’t read my post from yesterday? lol

    I agree with you on this point about criticism. The biggest part is seeing who’s writing it and how they’re saying it and what they’re addressing; okay, that’s 3 parts, though I see them as the same thing. In other words, criticism is easier to deal with that outright hate and rudeness, which we sometimes get.

    I think I learned my lesson when I started my first newsletter and sent it out to a few people for comment. All of them had something to say about it that they didn’t like… but none of them addressed the content. That told me that one has to be specific when looking for feedback. It also told me that it’s hard to please the masses, no matter who you are or what you do.

    Still, constructive criticism can be a good thing… I think that’s probably why we blog. ๐Ÿ™‚
    Mitch Mitchell recently posted…Someone’s Still Going To Hate You So Do Your ThingMy Profile

    1. Outright hate and rudeness isn’t helpful, and if it rings true to someone, they need a therapist, not an editor. You’re absolutely right – you do have to ask for the feedback you want (and I don’t mean saying “positive reviews only”) – you have to tell people what it is you’re looking to improve, because if you allow them to comment on things you’re not interested in changing, you’ve wasted THEIR time. But they also need to understand that you cannot and will not attempt to please EVERYONE, which means you may not implement their suggestions. ๐Ÿ™‚ “Thank you, but we’re taking this in a different direction…”
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Deconstructing Constructive Criticism and PraiseMy Profile

  5. Really great article! I think it’s true that many times, especially if you are a sensitive person, you can take criticism to heart. At the same time, constructive criticism is of a different breed than regular pointing out of faults. A solid article and reminder about what is welcome and what is not with readers and others in general.

  6. Once my motto became ‘torture Rachel’ (my beta reader), what I was looking for was what she generously provided without prodding: both her first and her studied impression.

    I have some gems from her. For some reason, this person 1/3 my age got me, and understood what I was doing, and liked it. And wasn’t afraid to mention if she was confused or to ask why I had done something. No greater gift.
    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt recently posted…Awesome BookRiot post: promoting a book you lovedMy Profile

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