I had a senior-level writing course when I was in college. The first thing the professor told the class was that if any of us didn’t think we could handle honest critiques of our work, we should leave. Nobody did, of course, but over the course of the semester a few of my classmates wished they had. It wasn’t that the professor went out of his way to be mean, but his critique style could pretty well convince a student that their writing was simply awful. I remain convinced that if my professor had just made a few small changes to his critique style, he wouldn’t need to warn incoming students about critiques.

Offering constructive criticism is surprisingly hard to do. There’s this balance you have to strike between working to improve the project at hand and not absolutely bashing the creator of that project. It’s made worse by the fact that when we critique, we’re almost always looking at something subjective: there is no right way to judge a job performances, a short story or a user interface.

1. Comment on what’s right

In every peer critique I’ve ever experienced, the teacher or leader has made a point of instructing the group to comment on the things they like about th work in question. On the surface, it seems like this instruction is just an effort to keep everyone’s feelings from getting hurt. But there is a purpose to commenting on what’s right with a project: after a critique, it’s entirely possible for the creator to throw out everything and start from scratch. It’s a fact that most criticism focuses on what’s wrong with a project — that means there’s almost no feedback telling the creator what is worth keeping.

2. Ask why

Every project has some sort of limitations from size to color to kind. When the person responsible for the project asks you for feedback, she may forget to mention those limitations. When you launch into a critique, though, she’ll get frustrated because you don’t understand the limitations she was working with. I’ve seen it happen — and been guilty of getting frustrated in this manner — more times than I care to count. The only way to avoid it — unless you have a list of the limitations in your hand — is to ask why the creator went with a certain tactic.

3. Focus on the general

We don’t always catch every typo before we go looking for a little feedback on our work. And while it’s great if we get a critique that deals with a few technicalities, it’s not nearly as valuable as a critique that focuses on the piece as a whole. When you’re giving feedback try to ignore the technical errors and focus on the big picture: in a performance review, for instance, how Bob interacts with customers is far more important than how he shakes a customer’s hand. Sure, the handshake could be improved on, but it’s better to have a great overall interaction with the customer than focus on that little detail.

4. Brainstorm fixes

If you’re giving a critique, you have no obligation to explain how to fix the project in question. It can be helpful for the creator to hear some suggestions, but telling the creator that there’s only one way to fix it doesn’t often help. Instead, making the effort to talk through a couple of possible solutions — brainstorming a few fixes — can help the creator quite a bit.

5. Offer an honest opinion

As we try to avoid being too critical, we run the risk of not really explaining what we think of a given project. If we don’t actually tell a project’s creator what our honest opinions are, what’s the point of a critique at all? While I’m not encouraging you to seek out every little fault, I do think it’s important to tell the recipient of your critique where you struggled with the project, what seems like it could be improved and what you think other people will have problems with — as well as what you like about the project.

6. Leave it to their judgment

No matter how fabulous your advice is, the person who’s work you critique may choose to ignore it. It’s his or her project and choice on how to change it. I’d recommend avoiding all the variations on “I told you so” you can think of, as well as ignoring any urges to ask for a critique of your critique. Unless you are asked for further feedback, consider yourself done when your initial critique is over.

Building Your Critiquing Skills

Critiquing is a skill, just as much as any other aspect of communication. Considering how often we’re asked for our opinions on something, it seems worthwhile to develop the skill to give an opinion without getting everyone in an uproar. While I’d love it if some people would just identify a little less with their work, the truth is that many people take critiques very personally and it takes a deft touch to help them improve a project without everything ending in tears. Whether you’re participating in critique sessions for your company’s next big marketing campaign or you’re headed off to the local writers group, think about how you can give a great critique. How can you really help the person asking for your feedback improve their project?

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