Giving and Receiving Negative Feedback – The things I learned

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When I think back to the early stages of my work negative feedback had no place in my home. Trust me, you wouldn’t find a welcome mat anywhere.

How can they not love this, I would shout. My work is solid! Perfect! An outstanding piece of first draft mumbo jumbo!

Yes, I was one of those. I also cried a lot in my crib.

 

I am Mozart!

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Being under the illusion that all of my first drafts were glorious it is now clear that the beginner version of me was headed straight into a concrete wall minus a helmet.

The other problem I had was watching the wonderful movie Amadeus one to many times.  If Mozart could nail it in one try why not I?

Yes. I was comparing my writing to Mozart’s genius. Jokes are welcomed.

 

How can you hate me?

Around this time I belonged to an on-line critique group. I had yet to submit my work as I was enjoying the early stages of critiquing others but when the time came to submit a story you can guess my surprise when the comments rolled in.

Convinced nobody ‘got it’ I moved on and added other stories along the same line, convinced again that this was a one-time thing.

 

Speak up, I can’t hear you

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Listening is a skill. Sure, we all listen but not all of us apply what we hear. With that in mind it didn’t take long for me to realize I had a lot to learn in the listening department.

As time went on and my visions of being the writing version of Mozart evaporated, I came to the conclusion that if one was to survive this art known as writing your tail off one had to perfect their listening skills when bad feedback occurred.

As I slowly learned the art of handling a tough critique I learned something just as valuable: How to give one as well.

 

Applying tough love

For as hard as it can be to receive, it can be equally as hard to give. I’m pretty sure empathy had a lot to do with it. Who wants hurt feelings?

But a writer needs to know if something doesn’t work and I knew a writer had to listen the same way I did. Good old tough love.

The most important lesson I learned when giving negative feedback was the beginning of their work. The writer is nervous. They want to hear the feedback but at the same time they don’t.

One of the tricks I learned from the experts was to open with a positive. I would point out an excellent piece in the early part of their work and highlight it. I explained how it stood out and moved the story forward.

From there I would gradually go to the center of their story where I felt it needed the most work and slowly end my feedback on a positive note.

 

I don’t want to hurt you

I’ve had a lot of success with this technique mainly because it was used on me. Hearing something positive at the beginning loosened me up and gave me a feeling of trust especially later when things were pointed out that needed lots of work.

As we all know writing is tough and receiving a tough critique is not a pleasant way to spend our day. Sometimes I wonder which is harder: Giving a tough critique or receiving one.

In the end it’s another step in the right direction.

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41 thoughts on “Giving and Receiving Negative Feedback – The things I learned

  1. Sorry Brian, don’t mean to doubt you here, but the older I get and the more I learn, the less I believe in those “open with a positive” hacks. They’re nice in theory, but they miss the greater point, which is, I feel, this:

    When giving feedback, you become two people, and you gotta inhabit the same space of cooperation. As in, you have to ensure that you and your pal are in the same mood, and the mood is one of mutual understanding, and of willingness to work toward improvement and general goodness and joy. When we’ve got that, it no longer matters if we say only “bad” things and forgo all of the “nice”. Once we’re in the spirit and mood of cooperation, we’re like two masons laying brick for a wall. All that we do aims for the completion of the work.

    Actually, Brian, I gotta thank you. Reading your post really clarified this thing in my mind. So, thanks, honey!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Alice. Love your honesty. You’re awesome!

      I worked with two amazing editors. Each had their own style. They pushed me in their own way but they both had one thing in common: They highlighted what I did best and they made sure I knew it.

      I learned a lot from them and one of the things I learned was to inform the author at the very beginning what I liked. The reason was simple: Their story had to have more of that and less of the things that didn’t work.

      Yes, it loosened things up by opening with a positive but it also displayed what I felt, as a reader, entertained me as appose to what didn’t.

      The author needs to know the good and the bad. By opening with the goods it sets a positive tone.

      We all have our own style and I’m happy you have yours. It would be a boring world if we were all the same, wouldn’t it. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I agree with you there, it’s certainly more effective to underline the good in order to encourage it! I guess I’m not so much against your ideas as I’m against the danger that such things become rote – that we just dish out good-bad-good hamburgers because “that’s the way to do it”. I mean, what I want is that we care for each other. We gotta love the one who gives us feedback, and we gotta love the one we give feedback to. Right? And I mean that in the most literal sense. I mean, I love you, Bryan – I wouldn’t spend so much time in your blog if I didn’t. And I feel… gosh, hard to put these things into words… but I feel that when we’re in that mutual state, the difference between good and bad becomes less. But still, yes, in the main I agree with you. The positive has more power us than the negative. Thankfully!

        Also, um, sorry for misspelling your name… 😦

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I am a great believer in the maxim “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all…”
    Constructive criticism is best, and done well, won’t strip the skin from the recipient! It might well inspire them to do better…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I don’t believe you were ever a bad writer, Bryan 😋. Love the way you approach critiques. It certainly helps to hear what works along with what doesn’t. Any writer who is serious about improving needs both.

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    1. Hi Priscilla. In my post I hope I didn’t mislead the reader in thinking I was sugar coating. There is nothing good in that and if we are fragile, writing a novel is probably a bad idea.

      I can only critique a book if I like it and by opening with a positive remark it’s my way of telling you that I like your style and your book.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think if a ‘balancing ‘ positive isn’t possible, then at least keep the criticism constructive. Also think starting negative then the positive afterwards ends on a better note.

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  4. I learned most of what I know about giving and receiving criticism from participating in Toastmasters. Live and in person, telling someone what they did well, what didn’t work and how they might improve. I think you have to include what the person does well, because they need to rely on their strength(s) when fixing what was wrong. Some times, people don’t realize what they do well. What they do well might be so second nature to them, that they don’t think of it as a technique.

    On the other hand, hearing what went wrong with my speech was always a challenge. I needed to remember that even when ‘they didn’t get it,’ it was my fault. If I had been more – whatever – they might have ‘gotten’ it. Sometimes, I read comments on my blog posts, and I realize the person either didn’t read or didn’t understand what I said. Either way, that’s on me. Make it more compelling for them to read and/or make it easier to understand.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Exactly, Dan.

      I remember a scene that I wrote where my editor loved it. I laughed because it was something I tossed together on a whim but afterwards it made me realize what worked and what didn’t.

      We learn by way of the positives and the negatives, don’t we.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks for posting this, I am a novice at blogging and although I have not gotten negative feedback (yet) about what or how I write, I am prepared to deal with the good and roll with the bad when it happens. Because I know it will happen, because all writers go through this process and in turn, in my opinion, we can either learn or ignore from our critics. Awesome post!

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  6. I love this, Bryan! You always make me smile! I am at a point where I am actually craving receiving the negative feedback, but finding it really hard to give it. I always worry about not being gentle enough. As you say, it is all a process!

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  7. I think it’s harder giving negative feedback, no one wants to hurt someone’s feelings.
    If done correctly, critique should encourage, guide and above all, enable the writer to grow: Without making them want to shred their MS.

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  8. It is very big of you to admit that you had trouble with this at the beginning! I think that, more than anything else will make people willing to listen to your point and maybe come to see they need to learn how to take criticism. I am not a writer but I struggle with criticism in other aspects. I am too emotional and take everything too personally. I like the idea of starting with a positive, I know I respond to that much better!

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    1. We’ve had this talk before my friend. You are a writer. You have a blog. You create and the words you choose are your own. I also have a feeling if you believed in something strong enough you would handle the criticism just fine. It’s amazing what we can do when we hold something to our heart.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Part of the writing process is learning to listen critically and developing a tough skin.

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  10. Your method also shows you’re invested. I don’t mind negative feedback- it’s part of learning. But I also wonder about those who only see what’s wrong with a story. I also wonder how this negativity affects a writer long term. Im sure some of those groups have a high turnover.

    If you take the time to share both sides, it says you are invested in my success and makes me committed in upping my feedback game. Aren’t those the best partners to have?

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  11. To answer your question: Yes. Those are the people I want to surround myself with. In fact I do. My writers group is exactly that. The people I’m with have an amazing balance of showing what works and what doesn’t and at no time do I feel offended.

    Thank you for your reply. Good to see you.

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  12. Honesty is the best policy. I believe in that balance between positive and negative comments, otherwise it’s not feedback. Also, the person who’s asking for it must be receptive and learn what to keep and what to disregard.

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  13. Great post and I love the humor, Bryan. I think this is a novice writer affliction. My first book was a 180,000-word prince that was going to ascend to the throne of the literary world. I couldn’t conceive of the fact that he was actually a long-winded, head-hopping troll. We don’t know what we don’t know, and we need others to point it out, a lesson I learned with much pain and turmoil! Criticism is how we learn and grow in our vocation. I’m not Mozart. And I’ve come to LOVE constructive criticism to the point that I’m disappointed if a critiquer thinks my story was great – because I learn almost nothing from that feedback.

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  14. My first draft was about 120,000 – ish. With eye popping backstories and bizarre character changes that the reader would love. Thankfully I was pulled in, slapped around a bit and told to come to my senses. Thank you, dear editors.

    We may hate the criticism at first but in the end we’ll love it.

    Good to hear from you, D. Thanks!!!

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  15. I really appreciate constructive criticism, and as a former high school teacher, I learned early on that the best way to provide constructive feedback is to be very specific and offer suggestions about something that isn’t working but to also compliment the things that ARE working!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Great article, I enjoyed the idea that you compared to Mozart. Hey, go big or go home, am I right? 😁😁

    I have to admit, im not fond of negative feedback and my long suffering alpha reader has to don helmet, gauntlets and a shield before he points out issues in my 2nd draft. He calls it “poking the bear”

    I’m getting better, slowly. I do beta reads for people and I made sure I was always giving honest, critique, thst included pointjngnout what I loved as well as what wasn’t working and why.

    I think it’s a value skill, listening, accepting (calmly) the feedback of others.

    I’m sure you reach Mozart standard eventually 😁

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