The Beauty of Constructive Criticism

Being the one judging is difficult. You want to be as frank as possible, but you don’t want any feelings to be hurt. It’s especially hard when the work you are judging is that of a friend, a classmate, or a young student. But we’ve all heard it time and time again: constructive criticism is vital and the key to growth. Today, I’ll be sharing a few tips on how to give effective constructive criticism that will push the work you are asked to critique– and even beyond the classroom.

What is constructive criticism?
Constructive criticism is a method of criticism that gives detailed feedback by providing specific, actionable suggestions. Usually, this method focuses on explicit recommendations for positive improvements, rather than just general critiques. It’s valuable in editing and grading, as well as giving general advice and tips to students or even friends.

Constructive criticism is not being unnecessarily harsh or mean, neither does it mean you cannot give general advice! There are many things to keep in mind when giving constructive criticism to help others meet and exceed expectations.

Why is constructive criticism important?
You’ve likely heard this time and time again, but we don’t grow from praise. Of course, praise is important, and it’s great to hear some good things about our work, but we can always do better. If we only receive praise, the odds are we won’t be improving our work noticeably. We will continue producing content around the same level, and eventually, people get tired of complimenting us too. It’s the same on social media and in our daily lives. If you scroll around your Instagram feed, what do you see under your friends’ posts? There may be an influx of comments boasting words of praise such as:

  • “You’re so cute!”
  • “You’re so pretty!”
  • “This is incredible!”
  • “I love you!”

Of course, these things are nice to hear, but it’s as if we’re just copying and pasting the same thing under all of the posts we make.

Specific praise and feedback, like constructive criticism, is a lot more meaningful than repetitive compliments. Pointing out specific details of an Instagram post or a student’s work makes them truly feel like you looked at the work they produced, and that you enjoyed it. For example, if you comment that your friend’s story “was really good”, that doesn’t say much at all. Pointing out specific parts of the story you enjoyed, such as “the scene where Lily and her mother were fighting” signifies you read the story, and praising these specific parts (“Lily’s actions during the fight truly spoke for her emotions and resonated with me. It was extremely gripping and I could not stop reading the entire time.”) will point out the strengths of the work.

It’s also important to address the negatives. This is the hard part because we naturally want to be nice to people and avoid hurting their feelings as much as possible. This causes us to involuntarily lie in our everyday lives, but when we must choose between sacrificing honesty or kindness, it’s especially difficult.

In everything we do, we can never be one hundred percent. There’s always more to improve on and some way for us to get better. Of course, this doesn’t mean we cannot be satisfied with our work, but for us to keep moving forward and not get stuck here on this plateau, we need to be accepting of our flaws and target how to fix and improve them moving forward. Many of us are blinded by the results and think that if we don’t have a perfect score, the work is worthless, but life is truly about the journey and not the results. Part of the journey means improvement, and to do that, we need to seek out what isn’t good enough. Sometimes we can’t see all of our imperfections, and constructive criticism is an eye-opening way to see a new perspective. Feedback forces us to think about how we work rather than just the results and helps us produce stronger work.

How to give effective constructive criticism
There are many ways to give constructive criticism, and everyone will have a unique way of giving it! There’s no one right method to doing this, but these tips can make giving it easier.

Use the sandwich method
When sandwiched in between positives, critique hurts a bit less. This indicates that you don’t think the story is bad in general, but that it has a few weaker parts, and that’s okay! You’re here to help with the weaknesses and see some improvements. I recommend starting by talking about general positives, followed by an in-depth explanation of different strengths. Be sure to hone in on particular things you admired.

Going back to our example of specific feedback, you can see the difference between an okay example such “this story was very interesting” versus the specific one “Lily’s actions during the fight truly spoke for her emotions and resonated with me. It was extremely gripping and I could not stop reading the entire time.”

To be clear, more words don’t necessarily make the feedback better. The more specific points you bring up though, the better. Talk about precisely what you like and elaborate: what is so good? In our example, the action of the story is good.

Now for the critiquing. This can be the hard part because it’s sad to write negative reviews or critiques, especially if we don’t want to hurt our friends/students/anyone else’s feelings. Remember though, it’s important to be honest and give helpful feedback if you want to help others grow, accept any constructive criticism that is given to us!

Start with a general critique if there is any. If not, just talk about the few points you found to be weaker. Similar to the positives, state specifically what you didn’t like or thought wasn’t as strong as the rest. Following the critique, you’ll want to provide an actionable step on how to improve it.

Don’t do this: This was terrible.
Slightly better (more specific): The story was interesting, but I found the dialogue lacking.
Good: The story was enjoyable to read and interesting overall! However, I found the dialogue a bit weaker, whenever there was any it was just back-and-forth conversation that was hard to read. To improve this, I recommend adding in small actions or thoughts in between what characters are saying.

Provide examples if possible. So, for this critique above, include an example of the type of dialogue the student was showing before, and then include an example of more interesting dialogue. If necessary, you can even explain your example.

Finally, we want to conclude with something positive. Reemphasize that the story overall isn’t bad, there are just a few weaker parts to it. It’s okay to quickly restate some of the particular elements you liked, but you want your conclusion to end on a general note. There’s no need to spend too much time on what you already covered earlier.

Following our previous example:
Overall, this was a very lovely story to read and very enjoyable. Your writing is extremely good already! I loved the introduction, the action and the ending in this story. Keep up the good work, I can’t wait to see more from you. This was a very strong piece.

Summary for the sandwich method:
Step 1. Provide any general praise you have.
Step 2. Say specifically what you like.
Step 3: Show what you don’t like and how to improve these flaws.
Step 4: Reemphasize the good, ending on a more general note.

Focus on the situation, not the person
Everyone has biases, but it’s important to remember to keep bias out of your critique as much as possible. Focus on the situation rather than the individual. Instead of saying, “you’re a really boring writer,” comment on how their “essays could use more details and figurative language.” This provides much better and more helpful feedback in addition to preventing hurt feelings.

Use an anecdote
Telling a story about you, someone you know, or even a famous person can make the feedback more helpful. This method helps reinforce that we’re not the only ones screwing up and we all make mistakes sometimes. It emphasizes that we can learn from our faults, redirecting the focus from a specific person’s problem to a general problem.

Use “I” statements
Talk subjectively, and not objectively! Instead of saying, “This was boring,” use an “I” statement such as “I found this a little bit repetitive and dull.” “You” statements feel more like blaming and accusing, while “I” statements simply feel like sharing your personal opinion and suggestions — which is what you are doing!

Hopefully, those tips helped you learn how to give meaningful and actionable feedback regarding student work, peer work, or anything else you’re asked to critique. Undoubtedly, constructive criticism will look different for everyone and in different situations, but these are tips to keep in mind. Feedback is vital to growth, so we want to make sure that we give and receive effective criticism!

Published by Brooke Xu

Brooke is a high school student and has been creating stories since she learned how to pick up a pen. She is a tutor for the NC Virtual Peer Tutoring Center where she was previously a member of the Writing Center. In addition, she is a member of the Wake County Public Libraries teen volunteering program, has been a teacher assistant at Cary Chinese School, and participates in volunteering events which include educational activities for kids. In her free time, Brooke enjoys journaling, reading, singing, and raising plants.

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