How To Give and Receive Constructive Criticism, by Shirley Jackson
How do you feel about constructive criticism?
For years I’ve experienced a love-hate relationship with it. Whether solicited or uninvited, constructive criticism yields mighty power. Sometimes it bolsters my writer’s soul and propels me forward. Other times it rocks my world and makes me question if I misunderstood the Lord when He called me to write.
So imagine my delight when I found this promise nestled in the book of Proverbs:
If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise.
(Proverbs 15:31 NLT)
But if constructive criticism breeds wisdom, why is it so difficult?
In my experience, poorly-executed criticism causes embarrassment, humiliation or a loss of dignity. The greater our emotional attachment, the greater the risk for these adverse reactions. For creatives like writers, this makes delivering and receiving constructive criticism even more problematic.
So how can we engage in this wisdom-giving practice? Through my work with critique groups at COMPEL Training and giving and receiving writing feedback, I’ve learned some helpful tips.
When Delivering Feedback:
Affirm the good. As writers, we can be our own worst critics. Pointing out strengths refreshes writers’ souls and reinforces good practices. But for praise to be effective, it must also be specific. As we offer feedback, identify what makes the writing strong.
Remember “constructive” is the key. In the spirit of Ephesians 4:29, use words to build each other up, “When you talk, do not say harmful things, but say what people need—words that will help others become stronger. Then what you say will do good to those who listen to you.” (Ephesians 4:29, NCV) Although we can’t control another’s response to our feedback, starting with a helpful heart and words cloaked with respect can open the path to acceptance.
Look at the big picture. Online checkers and editors are readily available for those pesky grammatical and spelling errors. As fellow writers, we serve best when we focus on the content of the message. As we critique, let’s ask: What can the author do to clarify her message or make it more compelling?
Less is more. There is an expression, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” An abundance of helpful suggestions can leave us unsure how to move forward. As we critique, let’s be gracious and suggest one important action our friend can take to strengthen her writing.
When Receiving Feedback:
Avoid the temptation to globally apply every piece of criticism. It’s so easy for me to fall into this trap. But I’ve learned to watch for patterns in the critiques I receive. While repeated critiques on the same skill exposes an area for growth, some comments are specific to a particular piece.
Separate the message from the delivery. Despite best intentions, sometimes critiques can feel harsh and leave us reeling. At those times, I’ve learned to focus first on the message. Is there truth in what was said? Almost always I find at least one grain of truth, but we must look for it. Then I look at the delivery. Could it have been communicated more effectively? If so, I approach my colleague with words like, “I appreciate the wisdom you shared. I think I could have heard it more effectively if you phrased it like …”
Be open, but reserve the right to politely disagree. Sometimes we receive feedback which doesn’t fit our writing style or voice. In those situations, let’s adopt the attitude of David. As he prepared to fight Goliath, Saul offered him his armor. But after trying it, David politely refused. (1 Samuel 17:38-40)
Remember to thank the one providing feedback. Giving feedback requires vulnerability and a sacrifice of time and energy. Let’s express gratitude for the gift we received of someone taking the time and energy to care enough about our writing and us to try to help us improve and be the best writer we can be.
Constructive criticism can be challenging, but it offers rich rewards. Learning the art of giving and receiving constructive criticism when it comes to our writing helps us take our place among the wise.
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