Wednesday, December 5, 2012

How to Get the Most Out of Constructive Criticism

Everyone says they want really thorough constructive criticism. That's a lie. Why would you want that? It hurts! Be honest--you mostly want to hear that that there’s nothing in your work to criticize. At worst, you're hoping for ways to improve something you already knew wasn’t working.

The most useful criticism is the stuff you’re not ready for, because that’s where the reader finds your blind spots. It hurts more though, and it’s hard to react gracefully when you don’t see the blow coming. So even when the criticism is useful, it's too much to ask that you react with a serene "thank you." Since it's going to hurt no matter what, here are some ways to make the most from it: 

1. Retreat 
I submitted this post for public critique at a writing webinar.  I did not expect the instructor to say: “the problem with this one is that the writing is terrible.”

When she said that, I put my head down on the desk and minimized the window so I wouldn't have to look at it anymore.  When my husband came in and brought me a Diet Coke, I yelled at him to get the fuck out of my office. Then I yelled at my kid for singing too loudly in the next room. You don’t have to bother accept criticism gracefully if no one can see you.

2. Attack
The instructor really hated one part of the post that she thought was dishonest and unreal. I wrote that my parents weren’t “entirely pleased” when they found out I was in remedial math, and the italics pissed off the instructor. “No one talks like that,” she said.

I got really angry at that, because that is exactly how I would have spoken it.  Only instead of speaking in italics I would have made a weird face on the word "entirely" to indicate absurd understatement. Because, what, I'm supposed to tell you about the fear and the screaming involved when you force a ten year old to learn multiplication in two days? About how I had to sit on the stairs that whole weekend with the gilt-edged World Book in my lap so they could watch me from any room in the house? The only reason I finally got it all down perfectly, late that Sunday, was because I was so terrified that if I needed quizzing again, they would find out that I’d defaced the book.

So while I would absolutely have told that story weirdly in person, I would have been weird in order to hide something I didn’t like. Which is exactly the dishonesty in the piece that she picked up on.

3. Advance
Remember that with constructive criticism, the point is to learn, not to like it. Whine and argue in private, but keep working so that you get the full benefit of the criticism. After tonight’s class, I wanted to kick a hole in my monitor, but I also didn’t want to apologize for yelling at my family. So I sat back down and wrote this instead. By getting back to work while the wound was still fresh, I learned a lot more than I would have otherwise. I also spared myself an evening of unproductive crap, like wallowing in hurt feelings and wondering if I was so upset because of the writing or because I’ve been a screwed-up approval seeker since childhood.