On constructive criticism…

…is there a phrase that is more effective when it comes to making you want to curl up in a ball on your bed and repeat “No, I don’t want to hear it” over and over?
Just me then?
I know it’s immature. I know. I know, that if I’m ever going to make any kind of living out of writing – and one day, when I’ve made a living out of something practical and useful, I might well give it a try – I’m going to have to man the hell up and get used to constructive criticism. But oh dear me, it’s not easy. I’ve always been someone who takes any sort of criticism personally. Something between my ears can’t seem to accept that there is a difference between a criticism of something you do and a criticism of who you are as a person. To me, they’re one and the same. Tell me I don’t do something particularly well and I will infer that you think I’m a bad person. Yes, it’s childish, yes, it’s a little irrational but I’m just being honest here. Everyone has their flaws; this is (one of) mine.
What’s more, if we’re talking about something creative – writing, something arty, something musical – criticism is harder to take. Without wanting to get too airy-fairy, if you’re artistic or creative, you’re probably quite sensitive anyway. Writers (artists/musicians/actors/delete as applicable) are analytical (possibly overly so) and sensitive by nature. Or they wouldn’t be writers. The very nature of writing creatively entails putting a bit, or a lot, of yourself into your work. So handing it over to someone else to get their opinion on it is like saying “Hey, put a judgement on the stuff that goes on in my head.” 
Obviously, it depends who’s doing the criticising. If it’s a lecturer, an editor or a personal tutor, well, it’s their job. They are paid to show you the faults in your work; it’s up to you what you do with that. I cried the last time I got some negative feedback for an essay. (And then proceeded to get so wasted that I can’t remember the rest of the evening. I know it featured vomit. Though that may have had more to do with stumbling across a bunch of Psych students who were making their way through a LOT of Cava…but never mind. I certainly drowned my sorrows, well and truly. Then chucked them back up again.)
Anyway, back to the matter in hand – that pesky assignment. I’d warmed to the topic, had got quite fiery about it, and had rather enjoyed writing it all up. I’d put genuine effort in, which was a new experience for me. When I got it back, I’d achieved 60% and a page of very mixed feedback. My writing style was praised and I got credit for some original ideas, but otherwise, I was rather torn down a peg or two. And that’s academia, folks – and indeed, life.  I think the criticisms were probably fair, which is why I didn’t contest them. I just really struggled to overcome the “for God’s sake” sense that if putting genuine effort into an essay resulted in a 60, how was it that dashing off an assignment in the last few hours before it was due and taking a real everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to the last couple of paragraphs could result in a solid 65? It was infuriating. 
There’s a difference between getting criticism for something you know you don’t do outstandingly, and getting criticism for something you have it on good authority you do quite well. I’m not sure which is worse – probably the latter, but the former carries a sense of “yes, I know I’m not amazing at this, you don’t need to point it out.” Like most people, I suspect, for me the latter stings like a bitch. If you think something you’ve done is pretty good, and then someone finds fault with it – well, I don’t know about you but it can spark tears and ruin my day. Feeble? Yes. I know it is. If you’ve got tips on toughening up, I’ll gladly take them. Lord knows I need to. 
And like I said, it depends who’s providing the feedback. It’s easier to handle criticism from tutors, for example, because a) it’s their job, and b) you don’t have an especially personal relationship with them. In fact, the relationship you have with them is based solely on them trying to teach you something, so constructive criticism is an obvious part of that.
Working up the courage to show your work to close friends and/or other halves is difficult, and that moment when you hand over what you’ve written can be a moment of ice-cold, nauseating fear. With someone you’re personally very close to, it’s hard to separate their opinion of your work from their opinion of you. Of course, in reality, their thoughts on a piece of your writing have absolutely nothing to do with their thoughts on what makes you awesome, in their eyes. But it’s hard to compartmentalise – criticism, however well-intentioned, can be fantastically difficult to take from someone you share the majority of the rest of your life with. So I guess the answer is to pick carefully. If someone’s opinion scares you, perhaps give yourself a bit of time to work up to letting them see what you’ve been up to. And, if a good friend/partner is trusting you with their work, then be kind. Be constructive, but for the love of God don’t forget that they’re probably terrified of what you’re going to say. If they feel that this is their one particular talent, then you must be tactful. 
Admittedly, not everyone is as feeble as me. But a throwaway remark made to a novice writer – who is, chances are, going to be pretty sensitive anyway – can cause no end of angst. Kindness and consideration aren’t too much to ask, I don’t think – anyone who’s “going public” with their writing/art/music wants constructive criticism, because they want to be the best they can be. 
Talk about being between a rock and a hard place – you know you need criticism to be able to improve, but your very nature, and therefore the nature of what you do, makes criticism hard to take. I’ll leave you with something somebody else said, because it made me smile:
“After all, one knows one’s weak points so well, that it’s rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them and invent others.”

(Edith Wharton 1862 -1937)

One thought on “On constructive criticism…

  1. Ah criticism. I would like to go with the old adage that 'with experience, all things become easier' when it comes to painful feedback sessions, unfortunately this is probably misleading. Just as one does not find getting slapped with a fish round the face any less painful or more easy each time they experience it, I think even after lots of 'constructive' feedback, the only thing that really changes/ eases is that you receive less of it because the person critiquing your work might be running out of things to say. Or the person hitting you is getting tired of having the smell of out of date carp stinging their nostrils. Truth is nobody can completely dissociate criticism of their work/ actions from a criticism of themselves, particularly when it comes to writing things of personal significance, ones inner most thoughts and feelings. It's not feeble to admit this as a shortcoming, it's brave, most people feel the same way, but don't have the courage to admit it, and as a result never take the criticisms they receive to heart.

    At the end of the day you will just have to trust that if someone, who's opinion you truly care about, does listen to/ read/ judge your work, they will measure any criticism that they think needs to be made (no matter how constructive), with compliments that also ought to be said, to help build up your confidence whilst still being honest. As with most things in life, things that seem nauseatingly frightening, are actually not so bad once you've done them. Like driving a car, or visiting Newcastle, or watching the only way is Essex… ok i lied about that last one- it's always nauseating.

    As for the notoriously prickly subject of essay marking, We've all been there! I once handed in 2 essays, spent 2 days on one, 2 weeks on the other. One got a 79, the other a 58. Guess which one was which? It's infuriating, it's bewildering, hell it's downright maddening, and all the worse when you know the person marking you has a point. Just don't take it as a judgement against yourself though, you may feel like you tried your hardest, but sometimes it's just luck of the draw, the markers generosity/ lack thereof, the markers personal views on essay structure and word-counts, the topic of your work, all have a bearing on the mark you get. These are things that you can't do much about. You just have to take what they say into account about what you can do, and keep on going. Just have confidence in the fact you are good at what you do and are getting better. Of course I say all that, but I'm pretty sure my response to that situation involved a bottle of whisky, some drinking games, several bars, some very embarrassing dancing and COPIOUS amounts of vomiting. Well anyway, if it is feeble to respond like that to things, at least know you're not the only one!

    By the way, I enjoyed the quote.


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