How to Give and Receive Feedback & Criticism

How to Give and Receive Feedback & Criticism

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How to Give and Receive Feedback & Criticism

(*From here on out, all of those who participate in creative work will be referred to as "artists", including non-visual creators such as game devs, writers, and composers. Similarly, all creative work will be referred to as "art", including non-visual art such as game development, writing, and composing.)

Feedback and Constructive Criticism are some of the most controversial topics in any creative (or non-creative) environment. Whether you're a visual artist, a video game developer, a composer, or even an office-working employee, you've most likely experienced or seen the results of poorly given feedback or poor responses to criticism. There appear to be two core problems that cause these results: not being sure how to clearly express one's opinions, and not being sure how to handle opposing opinions.

These problems are especially common in creative environments, such as art-hosting websites and game dev forums, because art of all kinds is one of, if not the, most subjective topic in humanity. Art is an expression of the self, or an expression of something important to the self, and is therefore an inherently sensitive subject. Giving good, quality feedback takes skill and experience, while receiving good, quality feedback is difficult because it inherently challenges your own views. This resource should help you understand the importance of quality feedback, and give you the means of growing as an artist and helping other artists grow as well.

+ OVERVIEW +

Feedback and criticism are immensely important to all artists. Your first draft can always be improved, and the key to improvement is to hear the opinions of others and understand how they are consuming your work. Similarly, your opinion and view of other people's work is equally important to not only their improvement, but your own improvement as well: the feedback you give to others can change your perspective of your own work and push you to try new concepts on your own. Artists tends to have quite thankless working environments, so it's key for all of us to provide support and encourage growth from each other. Learning how to give and receive quality feedback are necessary skills for all artists, even if this isn't a job or profession to you.

Let's define "feedback" and "criticism", so everyone is on the same page.
- FEEDBACK — information about reactions to a product, a person's performance of a task, etc., used as a basis for improvement.​
- CRITICISM — the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work.​
Feedback and criticism are not anything to be afraid of, nor are they tools to insult or belittle other creators. They are tools to judge how your work is being received by your audience.

— Why is it important to give and receive feedback & criticism?
Feedback and criticism are a core part of art. Artists cannot improve unless they understand how their art is being perceived by their target audience. Because artists watch their art being formed, it can be difficult for them to view it with a clean mind/eyes/ears and identify mistakes. If an artist cannot identify their mistakes, they cannot rectify those mistakes, and therefore cannot improve. So, it's important for others to communicate their own perspective of the artist's work, to provide a new view for the artist so they can understand their art's impact on others and decide if the impact they receive is the impact they intended.

Every successful author has an editor to help determine if a chapter in their book or a panel in their comic is working; every show and movie gets shown privately to help determine if the target audience is giving the intended response; every successful developer has play-testers to help determine if their level-design is communicating correctly with the players. Good, high quality results happen because they were given good, high quality feedback and criticism. Good results rarely come without people who understand how to give quality feedback and criticism.

I feel that it's important to learn how to give feedback before you attempt to receive feedback. If you understand the structure and intentions behind a critique, that makes it much easier to receive a critique when your turn comes. Even if you feel that you give quality feedback, or if you feel that you take criticism well, I encourage you to read through each section with care.


+ GIVING FEEDBACK +
— Good feedback is solicited, not imposed.
Despite the importance of feedback and criticism, some artists aren't open to feedback or criticism. Perhaps they're receiving feedback from a private group of those they trust, perhaps the work isn't at a stage where feedback is helpful, or perhaps the artist simply isn't interested in improvement on that work and they are only displaying it for showcase purposes. Regardless of the reasons, feedback and criticism are requested, not given out of the blue. It is important to learn how to read the room and understand if your feedback is wanted.

If someone is posting a finished product to their social media with the caption "finally finished with this!", are they asking for feedback? Some might argue "they posted it to the public, they should expect criticism", but not only is that ignoring the concept of basic manners, giving feedback to those who aren't requesting it is a waste of time and energy that could be spent on an artist who is requesting feedback. There are dozens of artists on dozens of social medias who are dying to receive constructive criticism and feedback on their work: take your time and your thoughts to those artists. Learn how to identify an artist who is looking to show off their work, versus an artist who is looking to get straight feedback and criticism.

— Tone and why people are calling your feedback "uncalled for" and "rude".
Tone is a similarly controversial topic to feedback & criticism, especially on the internet. It's difficult to express tone and emotion with words on a screen, but it isn't impossible. While no one should force themselves to type a certain way or form their sentences a certain way as to not upset anyone, it is still important to learn how to express yourself in at least a neutral tone when giving feedback to others.

"That looks bad", "this sounds stupid", and even questions like "why would you do that" are valid comments to make, but their tone is hostile, aggressive, and accusatory. Because art is already a highly subjective and sensitive topic, taking a tactless approach to feedback is going to exasperate those sensitivities and lead to nothing constructive. People are less likely to take feedback from people who they perceive as rude or aggressive, and while it's important for artists to be able to hear feedback they dislike, it's equally important for you to be able to have tact, have manners, have self-awareness, and be able to communicate your views and opinions without sounding rude, conceded, or hostile.

If you want your feedback to be heard, it is important to be aware of your tone and your intentions. Are you writing that post to help the artist improve, or are you writing it to list all the flaws in their work just because you know you can? Do you want this artist to grow and improve, or are you just looking to flex your own work as positive examples? What are your intentions while you are writing your feedback and criticism? If you are repeatedly being told you sound rude when you aren't intending to, it isn't up to everyone else to learn how to decipher your comments: it is up to you to identify why your intentions are being misunderstood and to make the changes necessary. If you can give feedback on other people's work, you should be able to receive feedback on your feedback. Feedback is a cycle!

— Identifying the positive even in the negative.
This is the most commonly mentioned point when people discuss criticism. "List a positive for every negative", "begin and end your critique with the things you like", "hide your negative review inside a positive review", etc. These are clinical, stiff, and unnatural pieces of advice, and they take away the sincerity and communicative part of criticism. While it is indeed important to make sure you aren't blindly bashing an artist's work, you also need to be honest with your feedback.

If you come across a work that is horrendous— the work that makes you want to say those previous phrases such as "that looks bad" and "why would you do that"— sometimes it's difficult to find anything positive to say. However, you are still able to look to the artist's intentions, rather than only focusing on their execution. Even if their execution is low quality and their idea is sub par, you should still be able to identify what they were going for (their intentions), and there must be something nice to say about it. Even a simple "I can see what you were going for" is enough to keep an artist from becoming discouraged or feeling attacked by a wholly negative critique. If you're unable to see what an artist was going for, however...

— Ask questions and learn intention.
Feedback and criticism are conversations between you (a stand-in for the audience) and the artist (the creator). Your first instinct upon seeing an artist's work shouldn't be to write an entire scholar-level critique: you should ask the artist questions about their work. Ask them what they were going for, ask them for further context of what this work is for, find out why they made this piece, learn what their target audience is, etc. This information is priceless to you, because it lets you give more relevant feedback to the work. You might find a work too dark or too colorless, but that feedback weighs less to the artist and might not help them when they're creating a horror game. LISTEN to the artist and use their comments to make your feedback more relevant and important to them.

— Don't be vague.
When giving feedback, your intentions should be to help the artist make changes and improvements on their work. While part of that involves identifying problems you might have with their work, a critique isn't helpful unless you provide examples and solutions. Show or tell them exactly where they went wrong, and then tell them how they can change their mistake to fix it or make it better. Get an example from another source relevant to their work (a published game, another artist's painting, etc) to give them an idea of what they can try. "It looks wrong" or "it's messy" isn't enough: how does it look wrong, why isn't "messy" okay in this context? If you aren't capable of providing a solution or an example, what exactly are your intentions with the feedback you're trying to give?

— Don't be unnecessarily long-winded.

There's a difference between having a lot to say and saying a lot. Get to your point. Feedback is done to make progress; don't waste your time with paragraphs that aren't helping get your point across.

— Feedback is a conversation: be prepared to have one.
Feedback and criticisms are designed to be conversations between the audience and the artist. When writing feedback, you should be prepared to spend time discussing with the artist and other people giving their own feedback. Something the artist says in response to your original message might change your view on their work (remember intentions?), or something another person says might make you eager to explain why you disagree with them. If you plan to hit-and-run after posting your feedback, consider why you're writing it in the first place.

— This is not your work. Feedback is a tool, not a rule.
Unless the artist in question is on your creative team, the work in question is not yours nor is it related to you. At the end of the day, it is up to the artist what they want to do with their work. Some artists will disagree with your feedback and criticism on the sheer principle that they have different tastes and views, and that is something you will have to accept. An artist not taking your criticism because they disagree with you doesn't mean they aren't taking any criticism period. Just as mentioned before, if an artist isn't interesting in your feedback, spend your time and energy giving feedback to the artists that are interested. Feedback is a tool, not a rule.

— Misc Notes.
If you're on an IRC/messenger-style site, try to contain your initial feedback into one message. Sending multiple short messages can cause your messages to get separated by other chatters, and can cause unnecessary misunderstandings between you and the artist. People are more likely to listen to you when they can read your entire thought at one time, rather than waiting for you to type every other sentence into a new message. This is a small thing that's easy to forget, but I've noticed that it's crucial to getting your feedback heard and lessening any misunderstandings that happen because people thought you were done when you weren't.
+ RECEIVING FEEDBACK +
— When to receive feedback, and why you shouldn't ask too late.
As an artist, you should be asking for feedback and criticism at each step of your creative process. Not just from your creative team (if you have one), but from people within your target audience: the people who you want to buy your art, listen to your music, or play your game. Their feedback is the most important to you, and if you neglect to ask for it until you've released your mostly-finished product, you might be faced with waves of low ratings, negative criticism, and an unhappy audience. By then, some of the problems your audience has with your product might be too big to fix without some serious time and energy.

You can avoid this issue by asking for feedback as you're working. When you get an idea, ask your peers (within your intended target audience) how they feel about it. When you start working on that idea, ask for feedback as you go. That big amazing idea you love might not sit well with most of your target audience, and you can work on fixing or changing it before you invest hours, days, weeks, or months of time with something that isn't going to work out. Don't ask for feedback too late, or you're going to get an unsatisfied audience without an easy or quick means of making them happy again.

(Even worse: don't not ask for feedback at all. If you intend to give your artwork/game/music to other people to consume, the BIGGEST bullet you can shoot to your foot is not receiving any feedback from your audience or only getting feedback from your team.)

— Your art is not you, and you are not your art.
Creative endeavors are one of the most personal things to each individual. Regardless of what kind of art you create, you most likely have a close personal attachment to the things you create, and that's wonderful and highly encouraged. However, it's important to not let this bond get between you and your growth as an artist. While your art may be a representation of you or your feelings, your art is not literally you, and you are not literally your art.

Negative criticism given to your art is not negative criticism given to you as a person. If someone doesn't like your art, it doesn't mean they don't like you. If someone is being hostile or aggressive in reference to your art, it doesn't mean they think you're a lesser person. If you find yourself feeling this way, try to ask for feedback from people you trust but know will be honest with you, and then slowly reach out to your target audience. It's okay to be anxious about feedback and criticism, but learning how to separate yourself from your art is an important step to improving, and you will need to eventually learn how to take criticism that seems harsh or rude.

— If you request feedback, be prepared to receive it.
When you request feedback, ask yourself: am I posting this to hear what I can change and improve about it, or am I posting this in hopes of getting compliments and being told it's perfect? Even if you end up experiencing the latter, you should be requesting feedback in hopes of the former. The latter should be a pleasant surprise, not a reaffirmation of the feelings you already had. This is why it's important to ask for feedback as you're working, and to not wait until you're mostly done with your art before posting it for feedback. People who give feedback want to spend their time and energy on artists who want feedback, not artists who are hoping to get compliments and praise and nothing else.

Similarly, ask yourself if you are in an emotional state where you can handle harsh or negative feedback. Everyone has their bad days, including artists, and some times you aren't in a position where you could handle negative feedback on a piece you've slaved over for hours or days. (This is another reason why you should get feedback as you work.) It's okay to not be prepared for harsh or negative feedback. If that's the case, wait until you feel better to seek feedback. When you aren't feeling well, any small thing can seem like the end of the world, which will distress not only you but the people who are trying to help you improve. Be prepared for feedback of all kinds, and if you aren't prepared, take a step back until you are.

— Ask questions and learn intention.
Sound familiar? Just as was mentioned in the Giving Feedback half of this resource, feedback and criticism are conversations between you (the artist) and your target audience. When someone gives you feedback, it's important to try to understand their intentions and what they mean in their commentary. If you don't understand what they're talking about, ask them for clarification or for context and examples. If you feel like they misunderstood your intentions (such as the purpose of your art, or your intended target audience), thank them for the feedback they already gave and then explain where you think the misunderstanding happened. The information you give to them is priceless to them, as it allows them to give you more relevant feedback. LISTEN to them and their feedback, and use their feedback to make your art better.

Remember that there is a difference between explaining your intentions and being defensive. Do you want to explain yourself because you feel someone misunderstood your intentions, or do you want to explain yourself because you don't like the feedback you received? If you explained what you thought was a misunderstanding and the other party feels their feedback is still relevant, do you end up still looking for excuses to defend your work? Learn how to tell when you're explaining yourself and when you're being defensive: remember that you asked for feedback to make changes and improvements to your work, not to get compliments and praise.

— Tone and why you're being told you can't take criticism.
Just as those giving feedback should learn how to be respectful and tactful, it's important for those receiving feedback to be able to take something away from a harsh or rude critique. This is a hard pill to swallow, for all the reasons mentioned throughout this resource, but it's extremely important to learn.

As I've said many times, art is one of the most subjective and personal subjects in humanity. Because of this, tensions can fly high when someone greatly dislikes something, or when people disagree on how a certain piece of art should be handled. On top of this, some people are just plain rude or aggressive about how they feel, and it can be easy to brush off those hostile reviews or write them off as personal attacks. However, even the most unnecessarily aggressive review has something worth listening to. Some feedback can be straight, cold attacks on your project, but it's unlikely that they're simply lying about whatever problems they are bringing up.

— Aggressive/Hostile feedback and why it's still worthy listening to.
"Your linework looks like shit and your anatomy is garbage, quit drawing anime or you can kiss being a professional artist goodbye, weeb. Also, learn how to color lol are you five?"
(This example was made for visual art, but replace a few key words to apply it to your own creative category.)
This kind of feedback isn't as common as people let on, but it isn't rare to see either. This type of feedback often causes artists and their friends to become defensive, which then causes the "troll" to say things such as "lol ofc you're getting whiteknights, you're a sensitive child who can't take criticism, lol you'll never make it as an artist if you can't get over mean people on the internet."

All around, it isn't a pleasant experience, and it's often easier for artists to simply ignore the feedback for their sanity's sake. However, it's important to be able to look past not only the hostile feedback itself, but also any defense that your friends or peers might try to give. You can take positives even out of this aggressive feedback: if they say your linework "looks like shit" and your anatomy "is garbage", take a deep breath and try to see what about your work is making them feel that way. Compare your linework to that of artists you admire, and maybe seek feedback on your anatomy. In response to a hostile critique, your friends may be eager to say things like "your linework looks fine!" or "your anatomy works!", but again, it's important to try and be objective about your work, as it's unlikely a "troll" is just blatantly lying about your work having problems, regardless of how unnecessarily aggressive they're being.

Don't brush off criticism just because you don't like the way it was worded. Try to focus on WHAT was said, not HOW it was said or WHY you think it was said.

— How & How NOT to handle genuinely rude comments or attacks.
Thankfully on the internet, most websites have some form of moderating staff. If you feel you or someone else is genuinely being attacked or that some commentary was overly aggressive or rude, the first action you should take is to contact an online staff member or use the report button if there is one. Do not try to engage on your own, and don't encourage others to engage either. Exasperating a problematic person can be just as bad as being the problematic person in the first place: you are a regular member, not a staff member, and it is not your job nor do you have the authority to attempt to moderate a serious issue on a site or forum. "Mini-modding" is against the rules on most sites. Don't break the rules just because you have a sense of vigilantism you feel you must uphold.

In direct relation to feedback or criticism, it is entirely up to you as an individual to decide how you wish to take (or not take) criticism that you feel wasn't made with the intention of helping you improve. I strongly encourage all artists to take the previous header into consideration, but at the end of the day, you have your own sense of agency and no one can take that from you, even if they think you're being childish or defensive in doing so.

— Decide if you agree or disagree, then decide how to handle it.
After receiving feedback or criticism, one of the first steps you should take is determining if you agree or disagree with the feedback you received. This can seem obvious, but it's easy to fall into the trap of arguing with someone who doesn't disagree with you. Take a moment to completely read all that was said, decide if you think the suggested changes are ones you agree to make or not, then decide how you want to continue.

— This is your work. Feedback is a tool, not a rule.
Unless those giving feedback are part of your creative team, the work in question is yours. At the end of the day, it is up to you to decide what you want to do with your work. Some people will disagree with your choices on the sheer principle that they have different tastes and views, and that is something you will have to accept. Don't shrug off all the feedback you receive, but if you are confident and secure in the choice you made, go for it. You are not obligated to take every piece of feedback you get and you are not obligated to change every little thing suggested to you. This is YOUR project. Feedback is a tool, not a rule.
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