Getting the Most from Critique

When I started my Creative Writing degree, my least favorite weeks were the ones in which I had my work critiqued. I’d toil tirelessly on a short story, edit it multiple times and ensure that every sentence was carefully crafted and conveyed precisely what I meant. Then, in the space of half an hour, my peers would point out countless, gaping holes in my work, tell me I should delete parts of the story I felt were crucial and even, at times, question the integrity of my entire premise. There was really no worse feeling to me than seeing my work get sliced up a hundred different ways. It frustrated me. It made me mad.

A few days later, though, I’d find a few of those comments and suggestions still nagging in my brain. Shortly after, without fail, I’d be heads-down in a rewrite, working on those issues that, earlier, I’d resisted. As I participated in more workshops and grew as a writer, I found myself desiring feedback earlier and earlier. I’d send first drafts to classmates via email or IM to get their perspective before going further. I craved critical feedback. In fact, I got to the point where I didn’t trust when people told me the work was good. No, come on, I’d insist. What’s wrong with it?

Getting your worked critiqued can be a pretty scary experience at first. Having a room of people who are, hopefully, smarter than you asking hard questions and pointing out missed opportunities can be incredibly humbling and, if you aren’t properly prepared, pretty frustrating. If you’re anxious about having your work critiqued, here are a few tips to best set yourself up to get the best experience possible:

Write everything down.

Whether you agree or disagree. Write everything down. It actually helped my nervousness to give myself a job to do during my critique. Furiously jot down ideas, points of critique and questions being asked. Later (like, the next day later), carefully read through your notes. Find answers to the questions you didn’t know the answers to yesterday. Look for patterns in the feedback. Did a lot of people comment on the third step of your flow? It might be worth another look. Were there any comments that just stuck with you? Give those ideas a whirl.

Come with questions of your own.

You know which parts of your work you’re unsure about, so make sure you ask the group about those things specifically. I’ve seen a lot of designers get frustrated with a critique because it didn’t address the things they actually needed help with. Your design team aren’t mind readers (though we wish we were!), so be direct about what you need from your critique. This doesn’t mean people should only focus on that. But it should mean that you walk away with answers that unblock you when you’re stuck.

Don’t wait for a formal critique.

Proactively asking for feedback is not a natural inclination for most people. Block out time each day to go show work to a couple people on your design team. Drop by people’s desks with your laptop or sketchbook. Pull folks into a room with a whiteboard to talk about your new idea before you do any work at all. Create a habit for yourself and you’ll soon start to feel lost and nervous when you haven’t shown your work to someone for awhile.

Collaborating with others is one of the best parts of being a designer. I worked as the solo designer for a long time at a few startups, and can tell you without a doubt how much stronger design becomes when we view it as a shared effort. Sharing work shows that you respect your fellow designers and value their opinions, and helps establish an open, transparent and friendly team culture. So stop what you’re doing, grab a coworker and ask what they think about what you’re making.

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