Check if feedback is what they really want

Check if feedback is what they really want

Making creative work can be a lonely business, certainly for people working by themselves on a book or composition or artwork or some other solo enterprise, but even for people who are a part of a small team of collaborators who are just – ‘just’? – seeing the same people and hearing the same voices while working on their creative project.

It follows, therefore, that creators can feel bored / isolated / hemmed in / unnerved / disorientated by occupying the same mind (or hive mind) day after day. So, it’s natural for creators to want to connect with other human beings to feel less alone and to access friendly encouragement, or motivational pep talks, or just a good listening ear in which to rant. It’s also natural that, as technical or aesthetic challenges arise during the work in progress, creators might also want to access more technical instruction. A creative working process can be a complex undertaking, messy and demanding to establish and maintain during the undertaking of an equally complex project. Creators may need to analyse, unpack, debrief, and seek guidance on aspects of this working process such as the management of time, energy, focus, and other (more material) resources.

All the above are valid reasons for a creator to reach out for support. Not all of them are necessarily about asking for feedback. But not all creators are as conscious of this as they could be, and there are societal expectations around the valorising of showing raw work and receiving brutally candid feedback. In my experience in the arts industry, I felt there were too many times when I saw artists (from a variety of art forms) emerge from their studios – blinking in the sunlight and tenderised raw by the demands of making work – only to be subjected to a barrage of criticism that left them reeling (and perhaps unable to process feedback as objectively as they might have). Yes, their work needed feedback – and they did know that – but they, as creators, needed other sorts of support – different types of dialogue – first and as well.

My advice to feedback-seekers is to be mindful as to what kinds of support – be it mentoring, or cheer-leading, or feedback – you ask for. And feedback-givers need to be mindful as well.

When someone approaches you to ask for feedback, perhaps test the waters conversationally to ascertain as to whether they do want feedback or some other sort of dialogue? You can do this by asking what they want feedback on, or how they have felt about working on the project.

If they can answer with specific details about what in their project works or not, or if they have questions about the impact it has, then they probably do want feedback. But if their answer is vague or veers into their subjective experience of making the work then maybe they need mentoring or a debrief?

You can always move onto feedback-giving later. And if you do, then you will find the creator more inclined to be receptive to what you say.

I hope that you enjoyed this blog. If you did find it interesting then you may find my resource Arrows and Honey: How to give, ask for, and analyse feedback on creative projects. You can buy it here.

Cover art by Rebecca Stewart
Asking for Feedback is not an invitation to collaborate

Asking for Feedback is not an invitation to collaborate

Feedback is essential for the making of good creative work, but it is something that many of us do badly. There are many feedback-giving sins. This blog deals with one of them.

A common fault among feedback givers is that they tend to tell you how they would have done your piece of work if they had been you, its creator, instead of telling you how experiencing it affected them.

They don’t comment on the work that exists – the work that you made. They comment on how a hypothetical work – a work that exists only in their imagination – could look. They compare your actual draft to their pie in the sky fantasy, and find the actual work wanting.

When people, in the guise of giving you feedback, undertake to ‘correct’ your work by trying to change it into what they would do they’ve missed the point of giving feedback. Worse still, they sometimes latch onto your project in a way that is almost parasitic. In the past, especially during my theatrical existence, I used to have people who would try to muscle in on the making of the work. Having blithely speculated on how they would have crafted the material differently to the way I did, they would then announce, uninvited, that they would be happy to give me a hand.

But I didn’t necessarily want this. Their vision for the work was not the same as mine – they had demonstrated this to me by not addressing the work I had made but by inflating their lungs and talking about the imaginary work that lived only in their heads.

Asking for feedback is not an invitation to collaborate.

And not addressing, specifically and directly, the content in front of you with thoughtful and constructive feedback does not advertise you as a good potential collaborator.

If you give feedback, then you must focus on commenting on the content that exists. If seeing that work inspires other thoughts then be quite clear whose head they exist within, i.e., yours. If you can act on those inspirations without plagiarising the extant draft your friend or peer has shown you then go ahead. If you can’t then tough; respect the work that someone else has put together through their own sweat, blood, and tears. Turn away from your fantasy.

If you would really love to collaborate with the creator who has just asked you for feedback, then tell them so. Tell them what you liked about their work instead of instructing them to change it. Tell them that their work has kickstarted your imagination but accept that this might not be the right time for them, as immersed in their own project as they will be, to want to know how.

If you are giving feedback, then remind yourself to respond to the work in front of you. If you feel impelled to make suggestions, first make sure you understand the intentions behind the work – what the creator is hoping to achieve – and then only give advice if it supports those intentions.

Otherwise, accept that this is not your project to play around with and that a possible collaboration with the creator may not happen during a project that has been under way before you gave feedback on it. Giving constructive and honest feedback with sensitivity will demonstrate your ability to be creative. If the creator wants to hear more about your suggestions, or even to invite you on board, they will feel encouraged to respond by your constructive and respectful approach.

I hope that you enjoyed this blog. If you did find it interesting then you may find my resource Arrows and Honey: How to give, ask for, and analyse feedback on creative projects. You can buy it here.

Cover art by Rebecca Stewart
Announcement: ‘Arrows and Honey: how to give, ask for, and analyse feedback on creative projects

Announcement: ‘Arrows and Honey: how to give, ask for, and analyse feedback on creative projects

“If you have to shoot an arrow of truth, first dip its point in honey.” – Paulo Coelho, The Archer

Cover art by Rebecca Stewart

Receiving feedback can feel like a fraught experience for the creative who has just shown their new work to someone. Earlier this year, novelist Eleni Hale tweeted:

“Waiting for feedback on a #WIP is a special kind of torture.”

We all know that getting feedback is an essential part of the creative process. Having been immersed in a work that is important to you, it is all too easy to lose perspective and to become blind to your work’s strengths and weaknesses. But it is this very act of immersing yourself in your work – living and breathing it so that it almost becomes a part of you – that makes the act of offering it up to the scrutiny of others feel so raw and risky.

“Every time I read that someone’s said something bad about me, I sob… I stop writing… I lose my appetite, I smoke less, I exercise, I go for walks along the shore… and I ask the seagulls, whose ancestors ate the fish that ate Ulysses, why me…” ― Roberto Bolaño

Not everyone reacts quite as strongly as Bolano, but most of us have received feedback that has made us cringe and feel disheartened. The popular take on this reaction is that most of us have egos that don’t want to hear anything but fulsome praise for our creative work. And maybe there is some truth in that.

But over the years, especially in my work as an arts administrator where I was a third-party witness to creatives giving and receiving feedback to each other, I have grown to realise that many of us are actually quite bad at giving feedback, that the cringe-inducing reactions were not always down to the vanity of the creator but rather the brutality of the feedback-giver.

Giving feedback is a privilege and responsibility. There is a skill to it, to achieving a balancing act whereby honesty about a work-in-progress’ flaws and strengths can be expressed so constructively that the creator feels inspired and reassured by that same honesty.

There is even something of a skill for asking for and analysing feedback. Creatives can make life a lot easier for themselves if they are mindful and specific as to how they frame a request for feedback, and then filter out the useful feedback from the inappropriate.

In my mentoring work I have talked with people who were left discouraged or confused by non-constructive feedback. This has inspired me to write a resource – a collection of notes – to help people with the feedback-giving process.

Arrows and honey: how to give, ask for, and analyse feedback on creative projects looks at what constitutes useful and constructive feedback, analyses the major feedback giving sins, and lays out some provocations to help you shift your thinking around the experience of giving and receiving feedback so that it becomes more positive.

You can buy it here.