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Arts Smarts: That Totally Sucks!!

Jon Tyson for Unsplash
Kathryn Burnett
Dmitry Ratushny for Unsplash
Adam Jang for Unsplash
Kathryn Burnett has some great advice on making yourself vulnerable, taking on strong opinions, blunt people and clumsy criticism. Here’s her top tips on how to learn from assessment feedback.


Humans – ya gotta love us - are terrified of judgement and rejection.  I doubt there’s a person alive who doesn’t hold onto a tiny flicker of hope, nay dream,  that their work is going to enjoy the warm caress of glowing praise.

Feedback brings trepidation

As I write this I’m really hoping no one is feeling compelled to get back to me with, you know, “feedback”. But feedback, positive OR negative, can help us creative folk grow. IF we know how to receive it and learn how to make it work for us.  

It’s impossible to receive assessment of your art without having an emotional reaction.  No matter whether it’s coming from a friend, lover, family member, writing group, teacher, work colleague, independent assessor, and critic or funding organization.  No one awaits feedback on their work without a twinge of trepidation.

And how can it be any other way?  

We’re emotionally invested, we pour so much thought, time and sweat into our creative endeavors – and now we’re making ourselves vulnerable to the potentially cruel opinions of someone else.

Attitudes to harness the power of feedback

So with that in mind I’ve compiled six vital tips on the ways you can get better at receiving feedback.           

1. Put that ego on a leash

Good grief – an assessment or criticism of your work isn’t an appraisal of you as a human being. Yes, it might feel like it is but what is it actually? Simply put – it is thoughts and opinions about a project you worked on. Some of which might not be well-informed or thoughtful or even right. You might not like the thoughts, you might not agree with the opinions but that is what they are – thoughts and opinions.

2.  Remind yourself that these observations don’t, and can’t, diminish you personally

Granted, negative feedback can have personal real world implications (or feel like it does) but maybe it won’t so don’t make that your sole take-away. If you weight feedback with that much importance it will be impossible for you to absorb it objectively because you’ll be worrying about what it might mean for you rather than how you can use it to improve your work.  

Tip: Do yourself a favour and seek feedback from people who know something about whatever it is you do - someone who will give you honest feedback, not just a pat on the back or ill-informed criticism.

3. Welcome negative feedback - it  can be your friend

Generally,  professional assessment or criticism is far more likely to focus more on the areas for improvement rather than listing all the ways you are brilliant. (That’s the preserve of Mums and others who love you, aka those who want to stay in your good books.)  So here’s a crazy idea – even the most negative feedback can improve your project and craft. So how would it be if from now on you receive feedback from that perspective? You could calmly ask yourself this – how can this viewpoint, negative or positive, help me improve my work? It’s nice for the ego to be told your work is perfect but it’s also kinda pointless – you don’t develop and neither does your work. Ideally,feedback exists to help you move your project or career forward.

Advertising Guru, Paul Arden put it more succinctly than I ever could when he said “Do not seek praise, seek criticism.”      

4. Strap on objectivity specs

Focus on the big picture – this assessment of your work is just one step on the way to where you are ultimately going. There will be other criticisms – some worse, some better – so try to put it in perspective.  

PLUS when receiving feedback, time and distance are your friends. Get perspective by parking the feedback and coming back to it with more objective eyes. If you can leave it for a couple of days you’ll see it differently when you return.

5. Distill and decipher

Decipher what’s really being said here. It’s possible that you’ll receive feedback which is blunt and possibly clumsy – not everybody is good at giving feedback. So your challenge is to ignore how the comments are being delivered and focus on what is actually being said.   

Try out some analysis. Ask yourself this – is the feedback I’ve received genuinely negative, or simply expressing an opinion, or perhaps indicating confusion?  

Make a short list of the comments you perceive to be 100% unequivocally negative. When you look at the list of negatives, is there an emerging theme? In short, is there a sub-textual concern that your critic hasn’t been able to articulate? Mentally remove any emotion that you perceive – and just look at the bald opinion. Try to distill all the comments or thoughts down into a couple of big criticisms. Then when you go back to your work – look at your list of comments and see if you can glean exactly where there might be room for improvement.  

6. Don’t worry, be happy

No, it’s not just the title of an annoying 80s mega hit – but a healthy way to approach criticism.  Here’s a cheering fact - the comments, critiques, assessment or notes you’ve been given are yours to use as you please – you can, in most instances, ignore them if you want to.  You don’t have to listen to any of it – but learning how to pick out and utilize the good advice from an objective critique is a skill well worth developing.

Kathryn is a screenwriter, playwright and writing coach who has worked in the NZ television/film industry for over 20 years. She was nominated for the 2017 Adams Best New Play Award, and in 2018 she was one of the writers on two television series “The Cul de Sac” and “Fresh Eggs.” She regularly runs sell out workshops at the Auckland Writers Festival and runs The Writing Room in Ponsonby every month. 

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

22 Apr 2019

The Big Idea Editor