The Delicacy of Providing (and Receiving) Criticism

All of us creatives can learn from others, but engaging in the critique process can be like navigating a mine field. The explosive damage resulting from an innocent misstep can be as mild as hurt feelings and as severe as the end of a friendship. A source of some of these problems, according to creativity researchers David B. Goldstein and Otto Kroeger, is personality type. In other words, creatives with different Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) profiles critique works with differing approaches and possess differing expectations.

cover_final_CU_sidebar1Goldstein and Kroeger provide insight on this phenomenon in Creative You: Using Your Personality Type to Thrive. (I previously reviewed this book and conducted a Q&A with Goldstein.) There are too many permutations of each MBTI to outline them all here, so I’m going to break down my own profile, INTJ:

  • Introvert (I): Goldstein and Kroeger say I prefer to provide written comments, and may not say what I’m really thinking if forced to verbalize it. That used to be the case for me, but I’ve spent too many years as an editor in newsrooms and other professional settings; necessity has forced me to learn how to be honest aloud. The authors say if you form a trust with an introvert, she will be straight with you, which is important, because the “worst kinds of criticisms are the ones you aren’t told about–criticisms you can’t correct or defend.”
  • Intuitive (N): I am said to be best at providing “an overarching impression of the intangible qualities of your work” but my advice is “often devoid of specific suggestions.” Again, I think my professional experience has forced me to learn to focus on specific examples, but yes, I do tend to take a broader view of a work. The authors say I “appreciate being challenged to think and being taught,” which is absolutely true. I would add that I seek feedback along the lines of what I like to give, so it’s frustrating when a critiquer will tell me how to fix this sentence or that paragraph but not provide a broader perspective; patching holes in a wall is a waste of time if the structure is near collapse.
  • Thinker (T): We’re told that this type “is objective, treating everything and everyone equally by comparing performance with a standard.” This is me to a T (pun intended), and I now realize it is where I have caused the most damage at times with my honesty. The opposite to T is F, or Feeler. I fear at times I have been tone-deaf to the emotional state of the person receiving my criticism. I have assumed they would process my feedback in a rational and analytical manner, when in fact one’s creative output is a part of themselves. I have focused–as a writing group member, as an workshop participant, and as a creative writing instructor–on becoming more sensitive to emotional response.
  • Judger (J): This is not a particularly flattering description in the book. I am “often initially closed to anything new.” I “tend to sound critical” when I express my views. And I “push for conformity and completeness.” Hmm. It is absolutely true that I tend to sound critical; I have often been told this (to my dismay), and it does not combine well with the T assessment above if the recipient is more of an F and a P (perceiver, the opposite of J). I need to reflect on the notion that I am closed to new things. No one likes to hear that, but if I claim to be open to being taught (see N above) then I should determine if that is an accurate assessment, and if so what I should do about it.

I think it would be very interesting if critique group members all decided to take a Myers-Briggs test, and then read Creative You to learn more about how each participant provided and received criticism. That is, of course, impractical in an ad hoc workshop or short class. But if we learn more about ourselves–how we provide criticism and what we seek–we should be able to be more sensitive to others’ needs and methods of delivery.

How do you tend to convey criticism, and what do you seek (or resist) as a recipient?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

20 Responses to “The Delicacy of Providing (and Receiving) Criticism”

  1. I’m very simliar, INFJ. This post hit home for me! Yeesh.

  2. Thanks Patrick for posting this and explaining it so well. We can gain so much from criticism but it can also discourage us or set us on a course that’s not right for us. Understanding a critic’s bias can help filter out what’s more about the critic than about ourselves.

    From our life experiences, we learn to balance our natural preferences and this provides a framework. Just to clarify, and hopefully help: since the Judging types tend to develop plans and stick to their plans, they can be “initially closed” when a new suggestion takes them into an unplanned direction. Especially those who are also Introverts and intuitives just need some time to see if and how the new information can fit in with their objectives.

    • I can see the “closed” instinct in myself given what you describe here, David. The key is to allow yourself to be open to possibility that you need to then “open” yourself. That comes with experience, of course. In 25 years of professional work I’ve been proven wrong too many times to always believe I always have the right answer, even if my first instinct is that, based on experience, I do.

  3. Patrick… I see criticism as either superficial (grammar, word choice), or deep (structural). I like to walk away from a critique session with both kinds, but if I don`t get the deep stuff, I’ll consider the session a waste of time. I think critique sessions work best if the reader explains at the outset what she’s after — “does this chapter establish my character’s goal?” for example. In my opinion, much session time is wasted on tweaking details that an editor or proof-reader can catch later on in the process. Cheers.

    • PJ, thank you for this contribution. How different workshops would be if the submitter was asked to provide guidance on exactly what he or she was asking for? That was the approach with monthly packets with my MFA advisors, but not with residency workshops. And yes, I always value overall feedback over line-editing.

  4. There are so many ways to deliver opinions to other writers, and some ways can be highly irritating, or even offensive. I’ve never read this book, Patrick, but your suggestion is a good one. Riding herd on how the writers in my group treat each other has been one of the constants. Most participants are old enough to have experience of the world, and other people, to have some sense of how the other person might be taking what they are saying. But we come from all walks, and our deliveries (and receptions) reflect our personalities.

    It’s easiest (for me) when people are face to face, I think, and the other person’s reactions can be viewed. The worst is delivering a phone critique when I can’t see the other person and determine how they are receiving what they are hearing – I really hate those, unless I know the writer very well, and have previously worked with them. Skyping is best, if the person can’t be present.

    For myself, I can’t stand the kind of critique where the other person feels they have to try to convince me of something, and won’t let it go unless I acquiesce, and right then and there. Suggestions should be delivered without asking the writer being critiqued to agree or disagree, and with respect to who is the artist of a particular piece. I try to do that when giving critique. I look at the entire thing, to see if it’s working, first. If it isn’t, I look for why, and make suggestions about that. Changing sentence structure is usually the last thing. How the story is being told: choices in scene, pov, characterizations, plot points, the BIG things – without those working, the little details, like sentence structure are not the answer (though I DO love digging into those for a talented writer who has written a great draft!)

    I’ve given thousands of critiques and edited many manuscripts over the years. I’ve only had one really bad reaction, and that one truly surprised me, because it came from an equal who is outwardly very professional.

    Likewise, the hardest critique I ever had to hear was also the one that helped me grow as a writer the most. And after I got over my fantasies of mailing that person a dead cat, or bag of poop, I actually came around to being grateful to him.

    • Cynthia, thank you for this fantastic comment. It is a post unto itself, providing guidance both for those who would critique and those who whoudl be critiqued.

      Let me say up front that you hit on something re: the phone. I had in my mind an in-person workshop when writing this post. But my last creative writing course I taught was online, so my feedback was not only written but not even in real time. So much communication is missed when it is not live.

      I fully endorse your notion of the critiquer not expecting the critiquee (are those even terms?) to buy in to the suggestion. I like what some workshop leaders I’ve been in have said, that if you have a criticism, provide a suggested fix, but make clear it is not expected the writer follow it.

      When are hackles are most raised may be when we most need to be receptive. I fought hard–at first–at the resounding critique of early drafts of my memoir that I was not sufficiently in it (a journalist instinct) but they were right. I’m glad I didn’t mail anyone any poop. Now we may react viscerally to criticism because it is off-base, but I think your example of the hardest critique being of most value may at times resonate with others.

  5. Hi Patrick, I’m the same type as you! Having just recently joined a new critique group (August), I’ve been thinking along the lines you’ve mentioned here – that perhaps not everyone in the group is as thick-skinned as I am? Some of my feedback has been received with notes of gratitude. Some has been received with a big fat wall of silence. It occurred to me that I may have given offence – my remarks of ‘no, this part isn’t working’ or whatever may have been misconstrued. To me, being the ‘type’ I am, I prefer critquers to get to the point, and don’t bother couching the editing advice in the ‘reasons why’ because it just feels like wasting my time – I want to learn, you want to learn – so don’t beat around the bush. However, as you say, perhaps I could benefit from thinking about the emotions of other people. Maybe we should all read that book!

    • It’s a great read, Yvette. I have had exactly the experience you are dealing with in workshops in the MFA program I just finished. I have had people come to me and thank me for the detailed, practical advice, and I’ve had others that went silent. It seems important for people to express their desired style and substance of feedback ahead of time, but I don’t think anyone would say “please just be a cheerleader and tell me what you like,” even if that’s what they really need, because they may not even be aware of what they need. And we INTJs could consider how better to cushion our delivery. How about us being the same type! We’re fairly rare, I think, and women with INTJ are rarer than men (I think 8% of the population and 3%; my wife and son are also INTJ, while my artist daughter is ESFP).

  6. I find this post veryineresting. I’ve been thinking alo abou this as well. I am INTP and am pretty open to criticism and I am very honest when giving my criticism as well. No brutal (I think) just honest. I recently joined an online workshop and have ofered my critiques a couple time. One o my critiques was very positive, and I that author critiqued my work in return, and the other critique was not as positive. I’ve heard nothing all from this person in any way. Now I’m hoping that I didn’t offend her.

    • I’m with you. If I were offended I might be afraid to tell the unintentional offender, so as not to appear thin-skinned or out of risk that they wouldn’t be willing to be honest in the future. Critiquing is a delicate thing.

  7. What a thorough explanation. Thank you! And it would be cool to see how a critique group could benefit from combining different personality and creative types.

    • I think other creative–actors, musicians, etc.–learn that understanding personality type is part of their art. They may not all take MBTI tests together, but they factor in that navigation as part of their art. Writers work in solitude, so the interactive part of their art–a critique group, for example–is a fish-out-of-water experience creatively. What helps is that the type of person willing to give someone else feedback voluntarily is, to start with, a presumably generous person without ill intent.

  8. This is great information. I would really like to check out this book. Being a writer in a fashion ever since I could hold a pencil, I am very sensitive to someone else’s “baby”. At those times when I was asked to critique something for friends or even my children writing for school, I tried to be honest with the thought that they would not be as objective about their baby as I might be. PS I also try to be sensitive about the names they have chosen for their children which is not far removed. 😉

    • Oh my, love the connection between the manuscript’s name and a child’s name! You know what? I was in a critique group once in which we were critiquing a woman’s personal essay about her life with her two children. One of the people in our group criticized her children’s names on the basis that they were too similar to each other. We all got that she had been at first confused when reading, but holy cow!

      • Right! As if she could change that part of her story or even control it. Wow. I try to remember when thinking of anyone critiquing my work that we are all different people with varied perspectives, tastes and talents. I love when someone gives me technical advice so that my work will flow better or be understood more easily. When anyone just doesn’t connect with it, well that could simply be a matter of taste and thank God we don’t all have the exact same taste. I like to also have friends read my work because I receive really honest input from them as everyday readers. What a dull place this world would be without variety!

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