The Keys to Constructive Criticism

You Are Good EnoughRecently, I had a new client hire me for some video scripts (yes, I do those, too).  The back and forth was not ideal or even close to professional, with the client changing the instructions between messages — and that got me to thinking about all the people who really don’t know how to give constructive criticism.  So, now the post about that thing my brain thought.

Constructive criticism is a specific thing — it’s more than just saying, “No, this won’t work.” and it’s less than completely firing someone and doing the work yourself.  It’s about being part of the creative process, about pushing the work in the direction your vision sees it going.  Everybody and anybody can do it, but you may need a little help getting into the right spirit.  Here are my tips!

Have a Direction in Mind.  Before you ever hired a freelancer, you should have had an idea of where your project was going.  If you expected them to bring your ideas to life without knowing what your ideas were or what they hoped to achieve, you’ve just set that person up to fail and yourself for another disappointment.  Figure out what it is you want so you can give criticism that directs the project in the right direction.

Think Before You Email.  When you’ve got that first draft in your hot little hands, you’re probably tempted to fire off a criticism right away.  Trust me on this: WAIT.  Wait five minutes, wait 10 minutes… just wait.  Give it time, because the words you choose matter, especially to someone who communicates for a living.  Choose the right words to describe your feelings.  If you can’t write it, draw a picture.  Just be precise.

Be Consistent.  Most of the time, your writers (and co-workers and children and friends) are going to be paying attention to the advice you offer them.  When you’re working on a project, you’ve got someone with rapt attention before you — so don’t fuck around.  Check your old messages if you have to, but always keep your advice in line with advice in the past.  This is why newspapers the world over have used written guidelines — they’re like a contract with the writer that things should be so.  Keep your eye on the prize and give advice that gets to the results you’re seeking.

Provide Complete Instructions.  Oh my fucking bajeezus, I couldn’t tell you the number of one-time clients who started out in a bad way with this very problem.  The instructions seem simple enough: Write the Thing.  I’m on it.  When you come back telling me that even though the Thing I wrote was fine, it was too much about Widgets and not enough about Tribbles, I’m going to be noticeably pissed off.  After all, I put my time and effort into your piece, under the feeble instructions you gave me.  If you didn’t want me to do a certain thing, you should have said so in the first place.  You just add insult to injury if I continue cranking out drafts and you continue changing the rules on me.  STOP FUCKING DOING THAT.

No matter what it is that you want to do in life, you’re going to probably feel the need to provide some feedback at some point.  Whether you do this with the grace and dignity of the Queen Mother or come tearing through like a sex-crazed bull looking for anything to hump to his satisfaction is up to you.