Making the Most of Meaningful Feedback
Soliciting feedback is tough. It can feel awkward, humbling, or as painful as pulling teeth to forward articles and photosets to friends and family, sheepishly saying, “Remember those 49 things you reviewed for me? Well, here’s number 50.” And even harder than soliciting feedback is making sure it’s meaningful and productive.
We belong to a generation that’s been taught from grade school to tie glowing feedback and metrics directly to our sense of personal worth: praise, GPAs, test scores, rankings, college acceptances, cum laude designations. There’s even evidence that social media engagement makes our brains light up in part because it, too, is processed as feedback that we’re doing well. So if you’re like me, the process of unlearning the thirst for glowing feedback is an ongoing challenge. Fear and ego must be decoupled from the feedback we receive so that we can process it maturely and productively – this makes all the difference between meaningful and not meaningful feedback.
Meaningful feedback is one of the most powerful resources we can access in our quest for creative growth. Deflecting feedback, seeking safe feedback, or taking feedback personally is a recipe for making sure we attract only useless validation. But what does meaningful feedback consist of, where can we find it, and how do we utilize it effectively?
Feedback is meaningful and legitimate when:
It highlights room for change or improvement, and you can distill from it an action item. Action items can come from positive or negative reflections: “writing is lyrical” can be an action item to keep your style; “writing is trite” can be an action item to freshen things up. Vague comments (“good,” “bad,” “awesome,” “weird”) are unhelpful and do not a constructive piece of criticism make.
It isn’t filtered. When we’re just starting out creatively and are still getting to know our abilities, receiving harsh feedback can feel threatening. This can lead us to dodge criticism by getting defensive, seek feedback only from people we know will be soft, or even preface bids for feedback with explicit instructions to be nice (I often see this in fiction/poetry circles). But all of that is like surrounding ourselves with yes-men and leaves us vulnerable and thin-skinned in the long run.
It makes sense for your time and place in life. Sometimes people base their feedback upon what they know about your genre or about seasoned, well-known professionals. Take that kind of feedback with a grain of salt – you do not need to be an Annie Leibovitz or a Joan Didion right now.
It isn’t trolling. If someone seems like they’re being gratuitously nasty, and you can’t pull any constructive action items from their comments, delete their feedback from your headspace. There’s a world of difference between “your designs could be better and here’s how” versus “your designs are the worst I have ever seen.”
Seek meaningful feedback from:
Trusted mentors. If you already have a teacher/student dynamic with someone in your area, start here for feedback. The benefit of an existing relationship like this one is that constructive criticism is already natural to your interactions.
Recent clients. No one knows your stuff as intimately as the people you’ve worked for. Consider sending each client an electronic feedback form upon completion of a project, asking for written testimonials, or setting up a call.
Contacts in your extended professional network. People in your niche are great sources to tap because they know your shared creative territory (and can connect you to future opportunities as well). Go to workshops, join societies and forums, attend talks. Frame your outreach from a perspective of genuine professional admiration, e.g., “I enjoy your work and respect your taste. I’m also a writer / artist / designer / photographer / etc. – could I pick your brain sometime on _______?”
People who follow your website / blog / social media / newsletter. Consider sending a form to subscribers, inviting comment submissions through Instagram Stories, etc. This is generally a good relationship-building move, too – it makes clear your investment in your content consumers’ experiences and ideas.
People outside the safe circle of family and friends. Your friends and family love you and generally want to be supportive, which means they can be biased toward flattery.
You’re using feedback well if you:
Don’t take it personally. The more distance you can establish between yourself and the feedback you get – positive or negative (!) – the better equipped you will be to use feedback productively. Think of the feedback you receive as feedback about a “product” you provide…not about you as a person.
Thank people for their comments. Acknowledging feedback gracefully and with gratitude and increases the likelihood that you’ll continue to receive honest feedback in the future.
Look for themes. After you’ve collected a handful of feedback notes, take a bird’s eye view look at all of it, and see if you can find common threads. Consider prioritizing issues that your reviewers all seem to agree upon.
Use it to drive improvement. Ultimately the point of feedback is to illuminate creative and professional blind spots and help us change for the better. If feedback merely inflates our egos or breaks our self-esteem instead, we should revisit how we interpret and use that feedback.
Above all, regard feedback as soft suggestions, not hard demands. Ultimately, your creative work is your work to shape. Only you get to choose if you want to take a suggestion to heart and implement it, or if it’s not right for you. It all depends on your comfort level, style, and objectives. Feedback is a great tool, but there’s no need for it to dominate your creative mission or your own sense of style and direction – trust your instincts!
Allie W. (based in SEA + HTX) is a consultant, writer, editor, and photographer with a background in literary criticism. She has served on the editorial boards of two literary journals and currently operates a multipurpose creative studio with a special focus on brand, outdoor, and event photography. She is a sucker for clear lakes, dark skies, and tartan shirts, so she spends her spare time hunting those things down…as well as chasing her cat away from attacking tweed furniture.