As an artist, criticism can easily stifle and destroy your creativity. And yet, it’s essential for improving your art.
I can remember my first creative jobs. What people liked and what they didn’t, what was praised and critiqued harshly often seemed random. How was I to process and understand? How could I improve? I wanted more praise and less of the harsh destructive criticism. Don’t we all?
Here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way that help me process criticism in a useful way. You can get better without letting it tear you apart:
Ask for meaningful criticism.
Don’t show your work to someone and ask them, “What do you think?” Instead, give them a meaningful question to answer. Do you feel connected to my character? Do you want to read/see more? What did the story say to you? Why?
Look for questions that help you discover a few key things:
- Are your characters relatable?
- Does your story make sense and are people moved by it?
- Does it say what you intend?
Ignore individual responses.
It’s tempting to hand your work to someone significant (a spouse, close friend, or artist you admire) and then take their concerns as gospel. Well, if Sue says that my plot is a mess, I just need to scrap the whole thing and start over…
Instead, seek a range of feedback and look for trends. Three or four responses is not enough. Aim to get ten or more people giving feedback on your work. I prefer upwards of fifty. Then look at their feedback. Are there patterns? Most people love my character but get confused during the climactic scene. That’s useful info. But one person’s confusion may just be them. We’re all different, and nothing you make is going to work for everyone.
Embrace anonymous feedback.
Your friends and family love you. They root for your success. At least in America, they’re inclined to sugar coat their responses to you because they care.
They also know a lot about you and have some impressions of who you are. If you’ve done your job correctly and really been honest with your characters and your story, it’s likely that your writing will make them uncomfortable.
Those are roadblocks to good feedback. However, there is a wonderful source of anonymous feedback at your disposal. It’s called the Internet! 🙂 Don’t be afraid to share your work. There are many online writing groups where writers can share and swap feedback with one another. For short films, I’ve even used crowdsourcing — paying workers small amounts of money to watch the film and fill out a survey. Be creative in seeking out readers and viewers for your work. But try to find feedback which is unhindered by relationship. Afterall, your target demographic probably isn’t limited to people who know you.
Don’t waste time on overly harsh criticism.
If someone says your work stinks or something even worse, dump their feedback and move on. It’s entirely possible that your work does stink and they aren’t wrong, but harsh feedback is virtually impossible to hear and internalize in a healthy way.
Say Joe reads my book, then he writes me and says, “Ted, you can’t write your way out of a paper bag. Your characters are all stupid and this was a huge waste of my time.” My natural response is to internalize this as an indictment of me as a person. That won’t help me to write or get better. But even if I could remove the emotional component, the feedback isn’t useful. It doesn’t matter what Joe thinks of my writing ability and I need to know why he doesn’t like my characters. Specifics are critical.
Joe could give me the exact same feedback in a receivable way if he said this: “Ted, I found your story very confusing. Page after page, I kept rereading things just to follow the action. The sentences seemed long and convoluted to me. In addition to that, I didn’t connect with any of your characters. They seemed like stereotypes. I really wanted to see them struggle and fail a bit more. Their life seemed a bit too easy.” That’s feedback I can work with. I can tidy up my prose, work on simplifying sentences where possible and breaking them up where I can’t. I can also take a hard look at my characters and see if Joe is right about their struggles. But most significantly of all, Joe has shown himself to be a reasonable person of whom I can ask some clarifying questions. 🙂 Again — none of this matters if Joe is the only person who sees these problems!
The strength of an opinion does not determine it’s value.
I don’t care how powerfully or persuasively it’s expressed, that doesn’t mean it’s right. You may have a reader who says exactly what you want to hear, or who knows just the right words to cut the legs out from under you. I’m being a bit repetitive but this bears repeating. One person’s opinion isn’t that significant — unless they’re your client or you really are writing just for them. Be polite. Listen to their concerns. Thank them for expressing them and move on.
Embrace the process.
Occasionally someone may come back to you and try to call you out because you didn’t incorporate some piece of feedback they gave into your final product. Don’t sweat it. Just tell them that you solicit feedback from a broad variety of sources, and their suggestions weren’t in line with the majority of the folks who read your work. Most people understand that, and appreciate that you’ve got a system.
Get a broad range of feedback, and only sweat the trends.
I’d love to hear about your projects and how you’re handling feedback in the comments. Do you have a great place you go to find early readers?