How to Give and Receive Criticism

No one likes to be critiqued. You may think you do, but you don’t. At best, you enjoy the process of learning that comes from being critiqued, or maybe being critiqued doesn’t bother you, but no one likes it. After all, our brains are naturally incentivized towards praise and social acceptance. All of which is beside the point: you are a genius, right? Any criticism carries the implication that you’re not, and that has to be wrong. At worst, your critic is an idiot. At best, they’re willfully misinterpreting your work.

But maybe the other thoughts set in.

“What if I’m a hack?”

“This play sucks. I should give up.”

“My writing is shit, and I’m shit.”

There has to be a way that internalizes criticism in a manner that’s healthy and minimizes discomfort. How does anyone create anything otherwise?

Your audience will have an opinion on a work of art by the nature of them engaging with it. So how do we persist if the minefield of judgment is unavoidable? How do we accept feedback without spiraling into an existential crisis? And how do we give criticism in a way that encourages growth?

How to Receive Criticism

I was bullied as a kid for being sensitive. I was reticent to make my voice heard for a long time as a result, despite holding opinions I strongly believed in. This impulse to not ruffle feathers chafed against my drive to create. Telling me to “grow a thicker skin” didn’t work. It only served to dismiss the problem. I hope that, by sharing how I learned to cope with criticism, I may reduce any friction within your own impulses.

Separating Yourself

The first moment of encountering negative criticism is an exercise in mindfulness. Do not lash out, do not defend, do not attack. Both critique and praise by another person is an expression of themselves. You can’t control what others think, but you can control how you react. If appropriate, thank them for their thoughts.

An essential piece to accepting criticism of your work is knowing the criticism is not toward you, though it can often feel that way. I talk about this point more in the sections below.

Pick and Choose

Not all criticism will be valuable to you. Listen with intention to people’s opinions and take note if there’s a consensus. Internalize and learn from the critique that you find useful. Discard the rest. If you’re unsure if a critique has merit, mull it over and give it time. We may become defensive in our first encounter with criticism, only to find it constructive as your guard comes down—all the more reason to separate yourself from impulsive emotions.

A small anecdote: I recently had my first encounter with criticism towards this blog. The commentary wasn’t malicious, but I didn’t agree with most of it. I chose not to internalize the critics’ ideas. I was confident in my choice, but worried other people might see the critiques and decide not to engage with my blog. This bothered me. I was inclined to engage with any person with anything negative to say about the article. Then I learned what I’ve stated above: I can’t control the opinions of others. I felt confident in my own convictions, and anything else that could be said about my work was out of my control. I stopped concerning myself with the criticism I didn’t find valuable or correct. Keep creating in a way that you’re proud of, and with some work, you will find the right audience.

Check Your Ego at the Door

It’s important not to avoid criticism. It’s tempting—people love to avoid immediate discomfort at any chance they get. But hiding your work, or choosing not to engage with an audience, will cause you to stagnate. This, of course, assumes that your work is ready to be seen and critiqued. If your play is still being written, there may be a period where outside judgment will prove to be detrimental. Stephen King calls this period, “Writing with the door closed.” My advice is meant for those writing with the door open.

The quality of your play and your worth as a human being are separate things. If they aren’t, that is, if you feel like a critique of your work is a personal attack, you might benefit from some perspective.

Sometimes artists with success in their given craft will stagnate because they’re afraid to fail like a beginner. When learning a new artform, beginners are forced to experiment and fail to discover what works and what doesn’t. But as soon as someone ties the success of their art to their ego (i.e., I must maintain my appearance as a master of my craft), they’re reticent to try things and create something new. They choose the safe path and avoid the risk of failure. There tends to be less improvement of established artists as a result. For that reason alone, it’s essential not to put much value on praise or criticism alike, and to view them merely as tools for artistic growth.

Measuring the Value of an Opinion

I used to read advice like what I gave in the section above and become puzzled. What’s the point of writing plays if I didn’t care what other people thought? Why not write them for my own entertainment and never let them see the light of day?

This is how I discovered how the importance of knowing the audience you’re writing for. Is your play for your significant other? Your best friend? Maybe it’s for a stranger with the same interests and curiosities as yourself.

Knowing your intended audience will give you power in choosing the criticisms you decide to integrate into your own work. It will make your work focused. It will allow you to stand confident in your convictions in the face of opposition by an audience it’s not meant for.

Managing the Self-Critic

Ultimately, criticism can’t wound you if it doesn’t mesh with your sense of insecurity. I was insecure about not being a “real” playwright for a long time. Edward Albee, for all his brilliance in drama, can be heard in interviews speaking to how some people are born simply playwrights. Those without the “gift” shouldn’t even try.

This, of course, is horseshit. With enough desire, work, dedication, and time, I believe anyone can excel at any skill.

One of my favorite examples of this is László Polgár, who homeschooled his three children to become some the best chess players in the world, the youngest of which, Judit Polgár, broke Bobby Fischer’s record of the world’s youngest Grandmaster. László was a psychologist who raised his children in this way as an experiment to prove his hypothesis: any child can become a prodigy with the right habits.

I love that story. But I digress.

You should come to love failure. Ideally, you will be failing at any stage of proficiency. It’s the best way to learn.

It’s too large of a subject to tackle in one article, but try not to judge yourself harshly. You may think that it helps. You may feel that it separates you from the pack and enhances your skills–but it doesn’t. It only makes you miserable. I know this from experience.

One of the best teachers I’ve ever had told me, “Be careful with the inner-child. Incentivize them to come out and play.”

A healthy detachment to your art is necessary as a tool for survival. I promise your work will not suffer because of it.

How to Give Criticism

I was invited to read for a classmate’s new short play at the time I attended The William Esper Studio. This was before I started writing, but I knew as an audience member that the piece foundationally flawed. It was preachy, lacked any character action or need, and came off as masturbatory.

My friend asked for feedback at the end of the reading. The conversation went something like this:

Oh, I’m not sure. I’m not really qualified to critique you. I’m only an actor, not a playwright.

But I want to know your opinion. I’m submitting this to a festival soon.

I don’t think you need to change anything. If this is your vision, you should stick by it.

Are you sure? You don’t have anything to critique?

Nope. I think it’s good as it is.

I was so insecure and afraid of hurting my classmate’s feelings that I was unable to provide the feedback that he was actively asking for. He could totally tell that I hated it in retrospect and our relationship had an air of tension after that night. Things might have turned out differently had I been educated in the way to constructively critique.

Set the Context

Two questions need to be answered before criticizing someone’s work.

Number one: are they asking for your critique? This may seem obvious, but sometimes someone wants to show you their work for any number of reasons that don’t have to do with receiving feedback. Some playwrights might be looking to boost their confidence by asking for encouragement only. Some want to avoid praise and criticism altogether but desire to embrace the fear of writing with the door open. Don’t assume an artist wants or cares about your feedback. Don’t tell your actor friend that the way they smoked their cigarette on stage didn’t look believable when they just got off stage at the local community theatre.

I did that once. It was dumb and bad.

It’s time to ask the second question only if the artist is looking for feedback. The second question: what part of their work are they looking to be critiqued? The best criticism should be constructive, meaning it should help the artist improve their work. So the second question gets to the heart of the matter—what do you need help with?

The Liz Lerman Method

When applying a structured method to providing constructive feedback for a play, I’ve had the best results when using Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process. The process can be molded to fit the needs of the criticizer and criticized, but the official structure is as follows:

  • Statements of Meaning.
    Also called “affirmations.” This step involves the “responders” (the audience of the play or piece of art), “state what was meaningful, evocative, interesting, exciting, and/or striking in the work they have just witnessed.” Beginning with this step allows the playwright or artist to know what they might expand upon or keep in their work. Every piece of art has something of value, no matter how small. I find this step to be vital.
  • Artist as Questioner.
    This goes along with the second question of criticism. The artist is allowed to ask questions to the responders to gain insight on any problem areas. This step works best when the responder seeks answers that can’t be given in a binary “yes” or “no” response.
  • Neutral Questions.
    The responders ask questions without an agenda. Neutral questioning invites honest reflection rather than defensiveness. It might also clarify something misunderstood or unclear and encourages curiosity instead of judgment.
  • Opinion Time
    Responders state opinions, given permission from the artist; the artist has the option to say no. I find this step to be the least useful, as responder questions can often be off-topic and more of a reflection on the individual than the work. That being said, some playwrights may find this step invaluable, especially in the later stages of their process.

I might have been able to help my classmate in a nurturing and constructive way, had I known about the Liz Lerman method earlier.

People would give criticism in the way outlined above in a perfect world. But in the Information Age, where literally everyone is a critic and espouse their opinions regularly (guilty as charged), people can lose the inclination to critique gently. I hope that, by wielding the knowledge of effectively dispersing criticism, you might inch us closer to that perfect world. And I hope that knowing how to emotionally handle and prioritize criticism may assist you in the reality of us as we are now.

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