How to give and receive criticism

As an editor, I frequently have to critique the work of others. Recently, the tables were turned and I received a critique of my positioning document from someone I trusted. Both experiences have made me consider what makes criticism effective, as compared to when it is painful or useless.

Disney: Ratatouille

How to receive criticism

Here’s how to accept feedback and make it as useful as possible:

  • Ask someone you trust. You are putting your work in the hands of another to judge. That requires trust.
  • Describe what you want. Say “I am concerned about structure,” or “I think it is too long,” or “I was trying to be provocative, but I may have overdone it.” This allows your critic to concentrate on particular issues you are concerned about.
  • Be confident. Confident people ask for feedback because they know they can do better. They know they will learn from the feedback. But they also know what they are good at.
  • Understand the difference between “this is flawed” and “you are flawed.” Once you have created the work, the work is not you, and you are not the work. You and the person giving the critique are working to make the work better, together. This is how you can accept criticism without feeling hurt. It’s not an easy habit to develop, but developing it is essential.
  • Don’t accept emotional critiques. Critics shouldn’t be mean, but they sometimes are. Distill the useful feedback and reject the rest.
  • Don’t lose control of your work. The job of the person giving the critique is to tell you how it can be better. But it is your job to decide what to do about that feedback. Just because somebody has a suggestion doesn’t mean you need to take it.

How to give criticism

When someone gives their work to you, criticizing it is a sacred responsibility. Be sensitive, helpful, and useful. Don’t be an asshole.

  • Only criticize when invited. There are professional critics and analysts who deconstruct published content. But that’s a different job from what I’ve described here. You should only give detail feedback when a content creator has invited you to.
  • Include positives. While the positives may not be the first thing you notice, they should be the first thing in your feedback. “These are awesome ideas, I think I know how to make them even better.” or “Many of your sentences are sterling, let’s make sure we cut the ones that are less effective to make those others stand out.”
  • Criticize at the highest level possible. If the idea is unsound, critique that, not the sentences. If the structure is effective but the paragraphs are poorly organized, critique that. Don’t spend time on small details when the bigger picture will require comprehensive rewrites.
  • Detect and call out patterns. Are there words that are repeated so much that they call attention to themselves? Is the author too fond of rhetorical questions? Are the section heads too boring? If you edit a particular problem two or three times, make a note of it and include it in the edit memo.
  • Explain why you are making suggestions. Not just “passive voice” but “This instance of passive voice is particularly problematic, because the reader won’t realize that it’s their job to fix what you’ve called out.” Or “These are really hard instructions to follow, but if you made them into a numbered list, the steps would be much clearer.” Such critiques allow the content creator to solve the problem you’ve identified even if they reject your suggested solution.
  • Suggest fixes. Writers hate comments like “awk” (for awkward) because you’ve failed to suggest a solution to the problem. If you’re paid to critique, you’re being paid to suggest solutions, not just find fault. If you suggest someone should rewrite a passage that is confusing, do some rewriting to show them how it might be done.
  • Use a collaborative tone, not a superior one. “I wonder if this could be better if . . . ” or “I think your effort to do x is worthwhile, but here’s potentially a better way to do it.” You don’t need to be any less bold. You just need to express clearly that you and the client are on the same team, attempting to solve the same problem together.
  • Use humor. We can all laugh at ourselves if the critiques are more funny than cutting. “I have looked high and low, but I can’t find the subject of this sentence.” Or “I don’t know what ‘privege’ is. Did you mean privilege? Privacy? Privet hedge?” Once somebody is smiling, it’s easier to accept a suggestion.
  • Calibrate your critique to the personality of the recipient. If they’re a newbie making obvious errors, be gentle. If they’re a grizzled writer with an impenetrable confidence, be piercing and unequivocal. I have clients who have posted my critiques on their Facebook as a badge of courage — others would be mortified for anyone to know what I’d said about them.

I love editing

I recently edited a short book. The ideas were awesome. I suggested cutting a lot of extra material, and pointed out that the writer had violated many of his own principles (a very hard kind of criticism to evade). After grumbling about the quantity of edits I suggested, the client not only made them, but requested a second round of detailed edits, which I turned around quickly.

Today I got this feedback from the writer:

You did a fantastic job. Loved the running commentary throughout (including the snark). I went through everything this morning, and added a few more examples as you suggested. . . .

I’m very pleased with the end result. It should provide a great skeleton for the larger work [which I hope to create]. Which, sometime in 2023, I’ll give you privilege of shredding as it gets closer to completion. 🙂

This made me feel very fulfilled.

If I’d pulled my punches, this author and his work would not have had the chance to get to where they ended up, which was powerful and excellent, with all the fluff pared away.

And I give the author enormous credit for embracing my extensive critiques with good humor, knowing that I’d given them the opportunity to do their most powerful work.

Criticism can elevate both those giving the critiques and those receiving them. Good writing is hard work. Good editing is hard work. Doing both in a way that elevates the work as well as the people working on it is enormously rewarding.

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  1. I always feel vindicated when a client says, “I didn’t realize how much work editing involved! You’ve pointed out things I hadn’t even thought about.” Well, yes, that’s what you hired me for!

  2. Great advice as always, thanks. When I’m editing something as a teaching experience (e.g. a graduate student’s project writeup), I’m careful not to offer a suggestion on how to fix every item that needs fixing. My students have ultimately found it more helpful to see one *possible* solution from me, framed as such. My goal is to help them *see* why their original logic or writing was flawed, and encourage them to think through a solution. Not do it for them all the time.