On Critiques, Conveyance, and Crystal Balls

Feb 08, 2021

By Christine Carron

One of the best ways to move your writing forward is to get it critiqued. Yet receiving feedback is a tricky business. Studies have shown that our bodies respond to feedback, especially critical feedback, as a threat. That kicks off a range of internal reactions—think fight, flight, freeze modes—that can get in the way of us calmly taking in and assessing the offered feedback.

If that weren’t enough, we humans can make receiving feedback even trickier. How? By redirecting our attention away from the actual critique comments and fixating on variables that have no immediate usefulness to us moving our work forward.

There are three variables in play when we get feedback: (1) the critique, i.e., the actual comments we receive; (2) the delivery, i.e., the giver’s skill in conveying the feedback; and (3) the giver's intention, i.e., if the giver intended to be helpful or not.

I. The Critique
The actual critique comments are both knowable and immediately useful to us to move our work forward. They are the gold of the critique process. They give us perspective from readers who are not as close to the work as we are. They are the data that we can review, assess and decide if we want to take action upon or not.
 
II. The Conveyance
The delivery, or conveyance, is also knowable. We can assess if someone’s delivery is kind/harsh, specific/vague, succinct/meandering, etc. So knowable, yes, but conveyance is not immediately* relevant to us as writers. I have received insightful comments that were delivered with harshness or ineptitude. It would have been to my detriment as a writer to dismiss those points due to their packaging.
 
III. The Get Out the Crystal Balls
The most confounding variable is intention. When I train folks on receiving feedback, many want to consider intention, i.e., Did the person have good intentions or not?—especially if the feedback feels unfair or harsh. This is not a useful path of inquiry, i.e., trying to divine someone’s intentions. 

Do I have a part of me who strongly believes that we can always know intention? Yup. But I also know that belief is a little woo-woo; getting into mind-reading, crystal ball’esque territory. On the non woo-woo plane, intention is unknowable.

Regardless, and more importantly, intention has nothing to do with the usefulness of the critique. Someone who has great intentions may give you comments that don’t help. Someone may have malevolent intentions toward you, may want to take you down a notch, may even hate you and your work with every fiber of their being, and they still may land comments that are insightful and useful and WOWZA!

The Conclusion
When evaluating the feedback that you receive, both delivery and intention are irrelevant. If you find yourself fixating on those, it likely means you have been triggered emotionally. In that case, the solution is to extend self-care and compassion to yourself. Take time to attend to the hurt and get yourself back to center so that you can assess the actual feedback with clear eyes, calm heart, and fierce commitment to your craft.

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* While delivery is less immediately relevant to us as writers, it is relevant to consider someone’s feedback delivery skills from a long-term perspective. I personally choose to not subject myself to repeat experiences of harsh packaging, regardless of how brilliant the feedback might be. 


This Goodjelly Prompt of the Week

  1. Have you ever found yourself fixating on delivery or intention after receiving a critique? Did the particular critique that triggered the reaction feel fair or unfair? 
  1. Do these three aspects of feedback resonate with you? Do you agree or disagree on their knowability and usefulness to you moving your work forward? 
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