I recently handed a draft of a final paper to my professor, who generously offered to look it over and give feedback. Admittedly the paper wasn’t my best work; I’d spent about four hours throwing it together just to get something in before the feedback deadline.
The professor sent it back about two hours later, saying that while some of the sections were good, the whole thing needed significant work. I was crushed for about fifteen minutes before I remembered that it did need significant work. I hadn’t put in the necessary time or thought, and it showed. With my professor’s feedback in mind, I started from almost from scratch, and when I handed in my final draft, it was something I was proud of.
That got me thinking about how so often the feedback we get in life is given with our feelings in mind. Your peer reviewer in class won’t tell you that you’re trafficking in cliché because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Your partner won’t tell you that an item of clothing doesn’t fit because they don’t want you to feel self-conscious. Your friends won’t tell you if they think you’re making a huge, life-altering mistake because they don’t want you to drop them and seek out friends who will tell you what you want to hear.
This is not good.
I don’t want to live in a world where feelings trump honesty every time. Sometimes tough, direct criticism is necessary to help you grow as a person, kick yourself into gear, or quit procrastinating on that thing you said you’d do six months ago. I would rather people tell me the whole truth, not some sanded-down version that they think won’t upset me. Sometimes people need to be upset. I know I do.
I run into this all the time as a creative writing major. Since the main mode of feedback for creative writing is in the workshop, and since we tend to conduct workshops sitting in a big circle, and voicing our critiques out loud, very little of the critique that comes out of a workshop is actually useful. I don’t tell someone that I think their narrator sounds a little creepy in one section, and no one tells me that my side characters are flatter than a pancake.
Nobody’s offended, and we all leave feeling good about ourselves – but no one leaves with actual critique they can build on. No one leaves a better writer than when they came in.
A side note – tough critiques can and should be delivered with tact. You’re not trying to crush someone’s dreams or make them feel bad about themselves. But keep in mind, you’re doing the people around you a disservice if you aren’t honest with them if you consistently prioritize feelings over everything else.
I’m grateful for the people in my life who’ve given me tough feedback or told me things that I didn’t want, but needed to hear. Those are the people who have helped me grow as a person.