How to give constructive criticism

Constructive criticism encourages.

Your goal in providing constructive feedback is to encourage the recipient of the feedback while providing useful criticism. That’s actually a tricky balance for many people. The first impulse of many is to see all the wrong and focus on that, likely being overly negative in the process.

You don’t have to be a behaviorist to know people respond better to positive reinforcement than negative. If you hit someone with a whole lot of negative criticism you might make them question their work, at best, or discourage them so much they give up. This is particularly true when someone is just learning and hasn’t had any successes.

I believe everyone is an artist and that the creative spirit should be nurtured. That means encouraging, not discouraging.

Constructive criticism is a bit like walking a tightrope. You have two almost contrary goals: encouraging the artist while providing critical feedback that will help them improve. That’s not easy to do, but it’s good learn.

Here are some hints to make your criticism constructive:

  1. Look for the positive, first.
    The things you don’t like or think need improvement will leap out at you like a tiger from the brush. The tendency is to focus on how horrifying the tiger is. Don’t. Isn’t the grass lovely? Isn’t it a nice day? Isn’t that bird singing a lovely song? Sure, a tiger would eat you alive, but all the things you don’t like about someone else’s art is not going to kill you and is probably drawing your attention away from some perfectly nice things.Find the things you like, first, and be sure to mention some of these to the artist. If you can’t find anything nice to say, don’t be a critic. Honestly, you’re just being an ass.
  2. Try not to use negative words.
    Try this: Write a criticism that doesn’t use one negative word – no no, not, or but. It’s not easy, but you’ll get the hang of it. Try it in your everyday speech. Not only will people be more receptive to your critiques, they’ll be more receptive to what you’re saying.In particular, get out of the habit of using but. But tears and claws (Still using the tiger metaphor…) at the declaration you made before you said but. “Your writing is entertaining, but…” So you’re about to say the my writing isn’t entertaining, aren’t you?

    What you could say  instead is: “Your writing is entertaining. It’s fun and it was easy for me to read. At times it veered away from the fun. Specifically, I found this part less entertaining: <Insert example of writer less entertaining writing here.>”

    See? It can be done. No negative words.

    Don’t twist yourself in knots (haha. Unintentional pun.) trying to be positive, just try to be more positive.

  3. Use the sandwich method if you’re new to giving constructive criticism
    What’s the sandwich method? Say something positive, then say something critical (i.e. the bad stuff), then say something positive. That’s basically it.

    The sandwich method of giving feedback is more for the person giving criticism than the person receiving it, in my opinion. It makes you look for the daisy in the junkyard. There’s some beauty in everything, something positive to say about anyone’s work. Can’t find it? Don’t criticize it and be sure to refer to the last sentence of item 1.

    I personally think the sandwich method is a little transparent, but it’s still worth using just to remind yourself you’re suppose to be encouraging the artist not crushing their soul.

  4. Use basic essay construction
    Tell the artist what you’re going to say, say it, then tell the artist what you said.

    Open your critique with a brief synopsis, then provide more depth and substance with specific examples. Finally, summarize everything you’ve said. The person receiving the critique should be able to look at the first paragraph or two and know what you’re going to say. The middle should be in-depth with examples and specifics. The conclusion should summarize the issues in simple way – the too long, did not read version.

Yes, all of this takes some time, but that’s part of constructive criticism. Remember – look for the positive, try to adopt a positive voice, provide your criticism in an organized, readable way, and don’t be an ass.

Your goal is to encourage, not discourage.


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