Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Constructive or destructive? De-constructing criticism

By Judith Ross for Talking Writing

This morning all the managers in my office are huddled with an outside consultant in the main conference room. The meeting is on how to give constructive criticism. This session was prompted by feedback received on a staff survey. Apparently, not everyone on the staff finds their managers' feedback helpful.

When it comes to criticism of our work, most writers have seen it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The best criticism I ever received pinpointed in a matter-of-fact tone what was wrong, included a suggestion or two, gave a couple of paramenters, and then left the rest to me. The result? One of the best pieces I have ever published.

The worst criticism was emotional, rambling, and included several erroneous judgments about how I do my work. The result? Resentment, anger, and a never-ending round of that age-old phrase going through my head: Take this job and shove it!

What about you? What kind of input do you find helpful? What kind makes you want to throw in the towel and hide under the covers with a trashy novel?


  1. It's all about respect, isn't it? If an editor is respectful of me as a writer and a thinker, I have no problem getting lots of constructive criticism, and I appreciate that somebody is in this thing with me. From the other side, as an editor and teacher, I know giving the right amount of feedback can be tricky and depends on the person you're working with. I believe that actively engaging with and deconstructing another writer's work can be the sincerest form of flattery--but only if there's trust between writer and feedback-giver.

    I think it's rich that your managers huddle with outside consultants to get tips about how to give constructive feedback--but apparently don't think to ask for constructive feedback from the staffers who complained in the first place. It's about power, too--who has it, who doesn't it, who wants it--always.

  2. As an artist and having once been a freelance editorial illustrator for many major publications I know what it is like to create a piece under direction. I agree with Martha- trust is the key here- after all they hired ME. And I will add, allowing the artist/writer/employee the power to do what they were hired to do. My best pieces like Judith were created with art directors who understood the complex process of creating. After giving me the article or book, sometimes a general concept and perimeters, I would do several loose sketches, where upon we would settle on one for the finish. Sketch being the key word here. Creating involves a systemic way of thinking. As I create I pull in and draw from all I have gathered and experienced in the past and weave all this into the current concept I am working towards making visible. This is what makes for rich, evocative and informed final art pieces. And it is what gives uniqueness to an individuals work. My worst experience were the pieces directed not by art directors but by editors. They tended to think linearly and literally and would direct the sketches down to the last detail- thereby killing for me any opportunity for discovery and joy in producing the final drawing.

    In the art education world ( I am also a teacher) there is a move towards teaching children "artistic behavior", that is the actual process and habits of creative thinking as artists actually practice it and not just how to make a product that fits neatly into a frame. If there is a real value in teaching grade school students creative and systemic thinking why aren't the same principles being valued in the adult work place? I suspect issues of empowerment have something to do with it.

    The principles of teaching for artistic behavior can be found in the book Engaging Learners Through Artmaking; Choice-Based Art Educaion by Katherine M Douglas and Diane Jaquith or go to: www.teachingforartisticbehavior.org


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