Feedback as a skill

Giving constructive criticism or any kind of beneficial feedback is something some are “good” and some aren’t. I believe that, as well as any other skill-based activity, feedback is something anyone can get better at given practice and mindfulness. That last thing will be hard for some, I know, because there are some who understand mindfulness more naturally than others. That doesn’t mean that they’re bad people, only that their feedback might naturally focus on things that aren’t helpful, like overly subjective criticisms.

Say someone gives you a piece of writing, and you read it. Maybe it’s fantasy, but your more of a nonfiction fan. You try to read it, get part way through and have to put it away because all you can think is, I can’t relate to this. I know none of it happened. When you’re done and put the story down, your friend looks at you, expectant, hopeful for some kind of good feedback and maybe some praise, but you can’t give them either because it’s just not something you “like” to read.

Maybe you say something like, “I don’t really read fantasy, sorry. I know someone who does, maybe you can have them read it,” which is a perfectly good response. But then, maybe you say, “I don’t like fantasy, you should write something more substantial like nonfiction or even literary fiction,” which I think is the least helpful response, though one I’ve encountered a few times from teachers and friends.

The issue, I think, partly, is the expectation for someone, anyone, to be able to read, look at, listen to or consume whatever it is that you’ve created and be able to give constructive criticism. People generally function in a state of high subjectivity where their tastes drive everything and if someone doesn’t “like” something, then they avoid it because it is “bad” for whatever reason. Most people aren’t willing to allow themselves to open up to things they’re not comfortable or familiar with just because of a single request. Opening up like that requires some kind of context larger than a friend or family member with a project.

The most helpful feedback I’ve gotten has been from a professor who I met at a writing conference. She has an amazing ability to read a story, whatever kind of story it is, and see the kernel, if it exists, of promise it has and give feedback on that, not on the surface details. She looks past any fantasy or sci-fi, or even realistic trappings and gives feedback on the story itself, the strengths and weaknesses of the story itself as well as the author. This doesn’t come from her being a teacher or the fact that she’s been a writer for a long time. Neither of those things describe someone who will give good feedback.

The ability to look past biases and tastes to give genuine, helpful feedback isn’t one that just comes about. It’s something that takes a certain set of experiences unique to everyone. I know that when I was in college, critiquing the writing of all my classmates, I had a hard time looking past my own interests and pretenses, though, now, after having so many experiences with genuinely helpful people as well as disingenuous people who are stuck in their own thinking, that I have a much better eye for giving real, helpful feedback.

In no way is the feedback I give perfect or helpful all the time. Those things very  much depend on the day. My point,though, is that feedback and criticism are very important for many things and so it should be treated as such. So much I see those who give feedback when it’s not wanted, warranted or needed.

The most important question I think about with regards to all this is, “Am I being helpful?” and, while it’s a very open-ended question, it’s at least a start and it’s a question that keeps me from valuing my own opinion over more important things.


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