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How Creative Writing Made Me Better at Giving Virtual Feedback

Your favorite digital empathy author gets a lesson in giving criticism from an unlikely source.

I’ve recently started writing a fiction novel and joined a community called Critique Circle. Authors critique each other’s work for points and then use these points to submit their own work for critique. Everyone is there to make their writing better, of course, so feedback is a core part of the system. In my short time there, I’ve seen some examples of feedback that, well, needs a little feedback itself.

Feedback is often the place people get the most tripped up in a virtual professional relationship. IRL, we lean heavily on our non-verbal cues to soften our delivery, make sure our points are heard, and make the recipient feel comfortable. Take these away, and you have a recipe for anxiety on both sides.

Some things to note about my learnings in this new world - all feedback on Critique Circle is written. And while relationships can develop on the site and clearly do, many of the critiques I’ve seen have been from essentially strangers, which I would’ve thought would make more of a difference, but maybe it doesn't. Lastly, I’ll add, these are WRITERS, so the expectation is that they can use their language to convey tone. And yet…. Here are a few takeaways I’ve noted.

  1. Positivity rules! The best critiques, or at least the ones I walk away from the happiest, tend to have a lot of positive elements. When you’re working on a project, you often only get feedback for the things that are wrong. Mostly, people helping you want to fix the weakest parts, you usually don’t hear any of the best features. But, where does your story/powerpoint/financial model excel? One doesn’t have to be a Pollyanna to see that positive feedback should be just as thorough and precise as critical feedback. Leaning into one’s strengths can also lead to improvements.

  2. Psychological safety. Some critiques may require a preface, particularly those that are very matter of fact, like a high school English teacher’s littered with proverbial red pen. A boilerplate version of “these are just my opinions, and I’m here in the spirit of making you a better writer” goes a long way to putting the reader in the right mind frame. It also acknowledges the critic’s biases, which will always be many, and that helps the person receiving the critiques to hold these ideas at arm's length and choose whether or not to use them.

  3. Ad hominem critiques are lame. In short, never tell someone they do something like a high schooler (when they are a grown adult!) Not saying this happened to me but not saying it didn’t. To tell someone their style is inferior is to make the critique too personal, too overarching. Feedback needs to be specific and actionable, not personality-based.

  4. Use personal stories. It helps to flesh out who you, as the person giving feedback, are in the context of your feedback. What experiences do you have that give you the ground to make these comments? It’s easier to accept feedback from someone we respect, and it’s also easier the better we feel we know them. Giving your recipient more context provides both of these.

  5. Be humble. Your criticisms may be wrong! It’s just one man’s opinion, after all. Acknowledging that goes a long way when you have a recipient who feels intractable. It can be easier to digest feedback when it’s put forth as a possible way of doing it better, not THE way of doing it better. Sharing why you hold this perspective is also helpful in giving your feedback more color.

Hopefully, these ideas can help you deliver feedback more effectively in a virtual world. Or maybe you’re on Critique Circle, too, in which case, I hope all your critics have read my list. Want to help your friends, colleagues, maybe even family members get better at giving feedback?

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