You’ve worked super hard on your piece, be it a written piece, a performance piece, or a musical piece.
You need feedback. You summon your friends, your family, or other creatives to take your piece and tell you what they think.
You get the feedback.
People don’t gush over it the way you thought they would. On the contrary, they have so many ideas on how it can be better. So many ideas it’s overwhelming, and you start to worry that maybe you’re not as talented as you thought you were . . .
What do you do?
Here’s the thing: you’re an artist in some form or another, so you’re highly invested in your work. This is especially true if you’re sharing something incredibly personal with your art. Getting feedback can be an exceptionally emotional experience. It’s so emotional, it’s easy to forget etiquette, and to let your stress show.
Well, I’ve been to enough writers groups, gotten enough feedback, given enough feedback that I have a set of rules I follow when it comes to receiving feedback on new work. I hope this is useful if you’re looking to share your work and get feedback, and that these rules might help if it’s a rollercoaster.
RULE NUMBER ONE: GET YOUR EQUIPMENT IN ORDER
If you’re receiving verbal feedback, you’re gonna’ want something to write with. You might get a lot of feedback, so you’ll want to write it down so you can remember it later when you revisit your work. Having something like a pen and paper is also a good idea if you’re going to get verbal feedback because, honestly, getting feedback can get a little overwhelming at times. If you have a pen and paper, you can ask for a few seconds to write down what the other person just said. This gives a few seconds to calm down if you just need some silence. Of course, if you’re receiving written feedback, make sure you’ve got a special area on your computer desktop or desk to put the feedback so you don’t lose it, and it’s all in one place.
RULE NUMBER TWO: DON’T ASK IF YOU DON’T WANT TO HEAR
I learned this one the hard way when I was younger. You know young people: they finish something, they’re really proud of it, they show it to someone expecting the other person to be equally excited. But it’s the first draft that got pounded out in the middle of an adrenaline rush. So it’s not actually finished, yenno? The other person points out that it’s not finished and it gets frustrating because you didn’t actually want feedback. You just wanted someone to be excited. Hence rule number two: don’t show someone your work unless you actually want their honest opinion. If you just want someone to be excited, just share with them that you’re happy because you finished. But hold the work until it’s ready to be shared.
RULE NUMBER THREE: DON’T ARGUE WITH THE PERSON
If someone says they didn’t find it funny, don’t argue that it’s a comedy. If someone says they don’t understand the character, don’t argue that they should. If someone says they didn’t like something, don’t argue that they should like something. If someone gives you feedback, smile, write it down, and move on. You asked them for feedback: don’t make them regret it by arguing. Also note that feedback is about hearing what they think about your work. Feedback isn’t about explaining, arguing, or justifying why you made something the way you did.
RULE NUMBER FOUR: YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE TO EXPLAIN
Here’s the thing: if it were clear, the person reading your draft would understand. The person watching your play would get it. The person listening to your music wouldn’t be confused. If the person giving feedback doesn’t understand, it’s because you didn’t make it clear enough. Again, take note, and move on. The only time you should explain your work is to say, “This was what I was intending: do you have any suggestions on how to make it clearer?” Saying this opens it up to further feedback, but doesn’t make it sound like you’re arguing. Remember one purpose of getting feedback is to see whether what you had in your head is conveyed to your audience—so if your audience doesn’t understand, then you haven’t done it properly, and you have to be clearer.
RULE NUMBER FIVE: PICK PEOPLE CAREFULLY
Here’s the thing: only a select group of people will give you the feedback you want and need. Think about who you’re asking for feedback, and what you want from them. Generally, people who will give you quality advice fall into one of two categories. The first category is of mostly friends and family. These are people who will give you feedback like, “I liked this,” “I didn’t like this,” “This didn’t make sense,” or other feedback along those lines. The second category is other people in your profession. These people know the logistics of your artistic medium and can target what exactly is wrong, and what exactly needs fixing. Both of these types will be useful at different times. If there’s something logistically wrong with your work, you will want another professional to look over your work and give detailed feedback. If you just want to know if your work is interesting, good, or if the general public will enjoy it, asking a non-artist will give you a better reading. Figure out what kind of feedback you want, and ask the right people for feedback.
RULE NUMBER SIX: KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE, KNOW YOUR EDITOR
This is a good rule for creating art, but also a good rule for finding someone to give feedback. Here’s the thing: not everyone will understand your work. If you are writing for a certain demographic (For example: teenage girls), get feedback from someone in that demographic (or someone who was in that demographic). It’s important to find someone who will understand your work because, otherwise, they’ll give you flawed feedback. How can someone give you feedback to improve your work if they don’t understand the intention of your work in the first place? The obvious exception to this is if you want to broaden the demographic of your work, and see if it appeals/makes sense to people outside of a certain demographic.
RULE NUMBER SEVEN: DON’T TRY TO INCORPORATE EVERYTHING
Here’s the thing: everyone has a different opinion on what a work is, or what a piece of work should be. People giving feedback will give their advice and their opinions on your work. They’ll give suggestions of what it could be. If you give your work to three different people, you’ll get twenty different opinions. It’s not possible to incorporate everything, so go through all the feedback you’ve received and only incorporate the advice that resonates with you. This is the big reason why you don’t argue, and you don’t explain things: you just write down all the feedback you’ve received and decide what you’re going to do with it later.
RULE NUMBER EIGHT: KNOW WHEN TO HIT THE PAUSE
Have you ever been in a room with ten people giving you feedback for a piece that was giving you a lot of difficulties in the first place? So you’re getting feedback from every corner of the room, and everyone’s got their own idea of what the piece should be. Conflicting feedback, people sharing, “What if you [insert piece of advice which made or may not sound good]?” This might go on for a while, especially if you’re workshopping a piece with other people. Seriously, for workshopping a piece, they’ll set aside an hour. And that’s great . . . except there is such a thing as too much feedback. If you’re feeling overwhelmed in the middle of a workshop, or in the middle of receiving feedback, know how to ask for a break. Maybe give the people giving you feedback an assignment while you go out and get a glass of water. People giving you feedback are doing you a favour, but the fact is that it can be totally overwhelming.
RULE NUMBER NINE: GIVE YOURSELF TIME FOR REVISIONS
Working with a tight deadline is stressful enough. But if you have no time to apply revisions, it gets even more stressful. Here’s the thing: the person giving you feedback might rip your work to pieces. You might need to rework the entire thing. If you’re on a deadline, you need to allow yourself time to rework your work. Honestly, if the deadline is really tight, you might be better off sending the previous draft without feedback. This, of course, is your judgment call.
RULE NUMBER TEN: ALWAYS SAY THANK YOU
If someone has taken the time to give you feedback, always say thank you. This is just common courtesy, but one you might forget if it was a particularly stressful feedback session. The obvious reason you wouldn’t say thank you is if you got feedback that was racist/sexist/homophobic/ableist/problematic in some way. Or, if someone was outright rude or mean. This one is really your judgment call. Be aware that if you don’t say thank you, you might be burning a bridge. Also, if you forgot to say thank you, sending a followup message or email later is perfectly acceptable.
I hope this feedback is helpful! After all, if you’re involved in a group, you want to receive feedback in a way that creates harmony with other creatives. Also, if you’re getting workshopped, you want to act in a way that will make them want to call you back and workshop more of your pieces. Or, if your friend is editing your work, you don’t want to ruin that friendship.
Receiving feedback is a skill, and it can take practice. But you can do it!