When I was a teenager I attended the Alpha SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers, and that was where I learned to give–but more importantly, to receive–constructive criticism. I got a lot of great things out of that workshop, but more and more as I get older I appreciate those lessons in particular:
- to appreciate feedback as an opportunity to improve,
- to view detailed feedback as a compliment (that someone felt I/my work was worth the time and effort that kind of feedback takes),
- to recognize that the story in my head and the words on the page are two different things,
- to recognize that the words on the page are ultimately what counts,
- to balance a desire to do objectively good work with an understanding that I will never and can never please everyone,
- and to expect that the correct response to a critique is not to argue, or to say “but I did that,” but perhaps to ask a clarifying question and then demonstrate my understanding in the changes I make during revisions.
I was discussing this with a friend earlier today, but after our conversation I made a connection that I’m not sure I’d made before: all of those lessons about receiving and using and appreciating constructive criticism? A lot of those correlate to principles of social justice (AKA ethics).
I want to get feedback when things I do or say are harmful/problematic, because I do not want to harm people or contribute to systems that harm people, and this feedback (even if painful) is how I learn to do better.
I appreciate when people take the time to give me this feedback, both for the above reason but also because they have decided it is worth their time and effort to help me learn. (They don’t have to do that, so the fact that they choose to is a gift.)
I understand the difference between intention and impact in the same way that I understand the difference between the story in my head and the words on the page. And just as I have to accept that readers cannot read what I haven’t actually written, and that they may interpret my work in ways I don’t expect or like, I have to accept that sometimes my actions have unintended consequences and those consequences still count.
I’m comfortable with the need to distinguish between feedback that is helpful if uncomfortable, feedback that is kindly meant but misses the point or that has a different goal from my own, and feedback that isn’t actually constructive, just critical. I know people I can go to for a second opinion when I need one, or people to whom I can vent in private if I need to get it out of my system so that I can go do the right thing.
And I recognize that when I screw up (because we all inevitably screw up) and someone points it out, the correct response is not to argue but to apologize, to ask for clarification if I need it (with the understanding that the other person is not obligated to provide it), and to demonstrate my understanding in the changes I make to my behavior moving forward.
It still sucks to be told I did something wrong or hurtful, the way it can still suck to have someone point out flaws in my work. I’m allowed to feel like it sucks. But at the end of the day, what counts is what I do with that feedback, and that’s a lot easier to do when I focus on the end goals: to write better. To do better.