The Oxbridge Editing Blog 25th November 2019

Essential university student skills: handling constructive criticism

25th November 2019

What is constructive criticism?

In basic terms, constructive criticism is a form of well-reasoned, objective and considered feedback.

Constructive criticism can be both positive and negative, but is always helpful in some respect. Consider the word “constructive”: its definition is “serving a useful purpose; tending to build up”. So then, constructive criticism is a type of feedback we can build upon. It is good advice that helps you to become better and to improve. Its intent is well-meaning and in your best interest. Of course, what is in your best interest is not always going to be pleasant. Actually, often the opposite is true. What is best for us tends to be difficult, even uncomfortable.

Why can constructive criticism be difficult to handle?

The simple truth is nobody likes to be told their work is in any way lacking. It’s not easy to hear. Some of us hide it better than others, but deep down we are all precious. When someone criticises our work (even when they are genuinely trying to be helpful), it bruises our ego. It can be easy to mistake an offer of help for an insult. We presume malicious motives in anyone who has the gall to find issue with our impeccable compositions. But think about it: what are the chances that any piece of work by anyone is actually perfect? That there is not one single alteration or adjustment that could improve it? The chances are zero. Even the greatest writers can benefit from constructive criticism.

Here is the issue: our emotions get in the way of logic. Our instinct is often to reject criticism when we hear it. We become defensive, maybe even angry. This is understandable but works against your favour. Rationally speaking, anything that helps us should be welcomed with open arms.

Examples of constructive criticism

So, what does constructive criticism look like? This is a tricky one. It’s not strictly one thing or the other. But it does generally have a practical component, something you can put into action. Telling someone their work “makes no sense”, for instance, would not be considered constructive. This statement is purely negative; destructive, not constructive. It offers nothing of practical utility but merely seeks to detract. However, if the meaning of a student’s written text is not clear, there is an obvious practical problem that needs solving. Constructive criticism would point toward practical solutions. Something like: the sentences are too long. This implies a clear remedy: reduce the sentence size. Constructive criticism is focused and analytical, not general and perfunctory. The person giving it should have carefully considered their words.

Within academia, certain sorts of feedback regularly arise. Let’s look at some common examples of constructive criticism:

”Murder your darlings”

“Murder your darlings” is a funny kind of phrase. It really gets to the heart of constructive criticism and the need to step back from your ego. “Darlings”, here, mean pretty phrases. They’re “darling” because they’re precious – to the writer, but not to the reader. The reader doesn’t care how clever your turn of phrase is if the content is off target. With academic writing, the reader wants information, not entertainment. This is why the “darlings” have to go. Dead weight is dead weight even if it sparkles. It will sting to excise cherished flourishes, but you must be ruthless.

This work is too descriptive; it should be more critical

First Years hear this a lot. This is because they haven’t yet mastered academic writing, which is full of peculiar words, rules and conventions. These can seem odd at first. Descriptive writing, on the other hand, comes more naturally. It seems more “normal”. As a result, students have to learn to be less normal in their scholarly composition.

Descriptive and analytical writing are different species but share much in common. Analysis requires some level of description, usually to frame the critical content (which should make up the bulk of the work). “Too descriptive” consequently suggests an imbalance. The text is spending too much time describing what or how something is. More time is needed on why it is that way. This means adjusting your approach to the topic.

Use more scholarly sources

When tutors advise more scholarly sources, they are saying your argument lacks supporting evidence. Meaning, it is not persuasive. Citation is required. Existing qualitative and/or quantitative data need to be brought to bear. Academia is based on an evidential system. Your subjective opinion holds little currency in such a system. Any time your writing makes an assertion (a statement that something is or is not a certain way), it needs to be backed up.

Over-reliance on scholarly sources

This is the flip side of the above. Stringing citations together is not the point of academic writing. The reader wants to know what you think as well as seeing you can use scholarly sources to back up your claims. Basically, you need to put more of yourself into the work. The “constructive” solution, here, is to cull non-essential sources. What can be cut without doing real damage to your argument? As a guide, your essay should be around three quarters your own words and one-quarter citation.

Your work lacks focus

Academic topics can be overwhelming. With so much scholarly research available, it’s difficult to know what to hone in on. A lack of focus is a lack of honing. This feedback is asking you to be more precise. Maybe you’ve tried to discuss too much; your work is broader than it is deep. Perhaps you’ve not found a specific angle into the argument. At all events, you need to rework your route through the subject matter. Make sure each point relates back to the thesis statement established in the introduction.

The work doesn’t answer the question

Before pen meets paper (of fingers meet keys), read the question, re-read it, then read it again. Now one more time for luck. Amazingly, students regularly fail to answer the question given. At least some of the time this is because they misread or misunderstand what is being asked. So, this criticism urges you to pay more attention to the rubric. What is the question really asking you? Figure this out, then answer it throughout your entire body of writing.

You need to proofread

You do need to proofread. Everyone does, but some more so than others. If a tutor counsels  proofreading, they are telling you to be more careful with your work. Typos, errors and awkward phraseology will lose you easy marks. Read your work thoroughly, then put it down for a couple of days if time allows. Pick it up and read it again with fresh eyes. Get a friend to read it. Or better yet, have it examined by a professional with many years’ experience proofreading academic work.

Criticism and constructive criticism

There are many stripes of criticism out there. Some are more empathetic than others. Some feedback is designed to help, some only to destroy. This can be a tricky business for writers. Delicate even. No matter how much we steel ourselves, negative feedback always stings a little. Or a lot. It can be difficult not to take critical comments personally. Writing is so personal after all. It’s our mind on the page. Matters are compounded by the army of trolls that everywhere sits in wait.

A filter is needed. But how do we know which criticism to listen to? First off, it’s necessary to know what the different sorts of criticism should look like. That way we can decide whether a given instance is a good or bad example of such.

Criticism and constructive criticism share some overlap. Both can identify strengths and weaknesses in a piece of work. Both imply some order of appraisal. However, they do so in distinct ways. A key difference is the mode of delivery. Really, constructive criticism is ameliorative. This means it has a beneficial function. It looks to make something better – again, consider the word “constructive”. It intends to help the subject of critique. Say a tutor advises you “tighten up your prose; be less verbose”. This may not be pleasant to hear, but clearly, the thought is well-meaning. This is instructional advice which aims to help. By contrast, “your writing is rubbish, throw it in the bin” comes from a different place. It’s not really about helping you. It is a slight, which really aims to hurt your feelings (remember the army of trolls?).

Being able to discriminate between constructive and other kinds of criticism is a useful skill. Think of this as sorting through good and bad data. We need data in order to configure our actions properly. Unfortunately, bad data are everywhere. So we need a keen eye. You want to be basing your decisions on the best available information. Ask yourself if the feedback is helpful or just hurtful. Does it present an argument (e.g. “this is not established, therefore the conclusion is unclear”) or is it just a slur (e.g. “this sucks”)? Anything that aims at the heart instead of the head is probably worth discarding. Also, scrutinise the source. Usually, constructive criticism comes from a tutor or a trusted peer — someone with your interests at heart. Constructive criticism doesn’t normally come from an uninvited source.

Intention and delivery are the deciding factors. Someone who intends to make you feel bad is not giving you constructive criticism; they are exercising their own demons. Constructive feedback comes in a thoughtful manner. Usually, it is very carefully worded.

Consider a scathing book review. The critic may well intend to be pejorative, to “trash” the work in question. This happens all the time. The objective of the criticism is not to help the author improve. Rather, it is to discourage the public from reading the book, or to entertain the reader with barbed wit. Of course, “straight” criticism is not necessarily negative. A review might be overly glowing. Perhaps the reviewer is biased in the author’s favour. Note, again, helping to improve the work is beside the point.

Other brands of criticism might be purely academic. The sort of critical writing students compose in essays, for example. This is more to do with critical thinking and logical argumentation; with methods of ordering rational thought. It seeks to illuminate instead of ameliorate. This is closer in essence to constructive criticism because it encompasses analysis. Constructive criticism is always analytical in some respect. It uses logic to pull apart particular components of a text. This works to locate weak points, specifically to correct them. It might be considered a sort of stress-testing.

Constructive criticism is objective. It entails reasoned opinions on how a work might be elevated. It is neither scathing nor glowing. It is unemotional and practical. However, it does in a certain sense have an agenda. Your agenda. Whatever form it takes, constructive criticism is to your advantage. The ultimate purpose is to enable you to attain better results. For this reason, it should be seen as something to be leveraged to your benefit.

Using constructive criticism to your benefit

At the end of the day, constructive criticism is a gift. It might not feel like one, but it is. Someone has taken the time to seriously think about your work and how it could be made better. This person is clearly on your side. All allies should be invited in and treated accordingly. Accept feedback gracefully. Be receptive. Resist the urge to be adversarial. Let reason guide your reactions. Genuinely listening and considering what is being said is definitely the way to go. Probably it wasn’t easy for the person to provide a critique. It was almost certainly difficult, perhaps awkward; and they’re doing it to help you. (You know yourself, giving feedback can be “difficult”.) Your success is their priority. Even with the best intentions, identifying flaws is usually a thankless endeavour. So, thank the person. What is being “constructed”, after all, is your own ability.

Separating logic and emotion and doing what is best is the key. Be coolly rational and strategic. This probably means curbing your reaction. Of course, this isn’t easy. Humans are emotional creatures. Our instinct is to recoil at negative comments. So, try to think like a computer. Pure rationality. Easier said than done, admittedly. But at least try. Take the feedback on board, even if you don’t agree with some or all of it. Even if you don’t like the person giving it. Sometimes great advice can come from surprising sources. As long as you trust that the person knows what they’re talking about, give them the time of day.

You need to keep perspective. Remember what university education is all about: getting the best qualifications you can. This is a long game. It might entail some prickly moments en route — a bit of squirming in your seat. But, actually, little moments of discomfort are (or should be) insignificant in the overall scheme of what you’re trying to achieve. Simply put, success. Your degree sets the trajectory for the rest of your life. Imagine only just missing a first-class grade because you were too sensitive. Accept that your work probably isn’t impeccable. Be open to advice. Don’t sacrifice your future career just to save your feelings today. Okay, that’s maybe a bit of an extreme way of looking at things. But it gets to the point. There is a bigger picture here, your future. University is only a small part of the equation. Remember, long game.

Hopefully, now, we’ve got you thinking like a rationality machine powered by unadulterated logic. Or, at least, we’ve convinced you to put your feelings aside for one moment and realise what’s in your best interest. It’s time to embrace a forward-looking attitude.

Just being able to accept criticism in the first place is a milestone. In fact, it’s the hardest part. After this it’s easy. Relatively. You just have to process the feedback. This means clarifying what’s been said and figuring out how to move forward. Every piece of constructive criticism should imply or assert the next step. Say you’re told your writing “lacks clarity”. The clear implication is that clarity must be added. Meaning you need to isolate how, exactly, clarity lacks. Ask for elaboration, specific instances. What would make this clearer? The person who gave the feedback should be able to answer these questions. Hence you will be able to address the particulars in their reservations, working as a mechanic to deconstruct the issues. Thorough understanding of the problem will allow you to fix it.

Thereafter some self-led learning is in order. You might read a writing manual or attend a prose workshop. Whatever it takes to improve. Writing is a technical craft which can be refined with practice. It will pay to dedicate some time here. The great thing about constructive criticism is it highlights your weak spots. Now you know what you have to work on. Become a master of clarity (or whatever it might be). Patch up the holes in your game. You’ll never be perfect, but you’ll be as close to perfect as you can be. In this clever way, you’ll turn liabilities into assets.

Obviously, then, there is an optimisation process at work in navigating constructive criticism. Bits of feedback are like various signposts pointing the way to a better place. We shouldn’t ignore them. It’s worth thinking about how excellence is achieved – in any sphere. Usually, we don’t know about our weaknesses until somebody points them out. A trusted outside voice. Great athletes have coaches. Great writers have editors. Achieving excellence is, from this vantage, a collaborative process. Accepting help is part of it. After all, we need to be aware of gaps if we are to bridge them.

7 tips on taking constructive criticism

1. Listen

The first rule of listening is: be quiet. When someone gives you constructive feedback, bite your tongue. Wait for that initial swell of emotion (which will come) to subside. Now, reflect on what has been said. Coolly. Be analytical. Appraise the feedback. Consider how it translates to practical steps you can follow. Follow them.

2. Be strategic

Following good advice is always strategically wise. Especially when this advice comes from a tutor, this person either will be marking your work or thinks a lot like the person who will. They know what they’re talking about. So do the logical thing and heed their counsel. After all, they are basically telling you exactly what they want. Why would you not be forthcoming?

3. Take off the bubble wrap

Don’t waste time indulging in hurt feelings. This will only create an emotional roadblock to personal and academic development. University isn’t supposed to baby you. When someone gives you constructive feedback, the point is to deal with it. Use it to your advantage, to get better. If you ignore this purpose and focus only on how it makes you feel, you will waste a valuable opportunity to improve. Moping will not get you a first.

4. Remember: it’s not personal

Really, it’s not. Criticism is focused on the work and not the person. Your tutor does not have a vendetta against you; they want to help you. One of the biggest barriers to development (in any field, really) is ego. The ego gets in the way. Focus on being the best you can be, even if that means not feeling good all the time.

5. Ask follow-up questions

It makes sense to get as much information as you can. Likely it will be useful to discuss (not argue) with the person who gave the feedback. Let them help you understand their point of view. Share your own perspective. This is an opportunity to have a constructive conversation that should leave you better informed and with a clear sense of direction. Constructive criticism should be pointing you in a particular direction. Find it.

6. Follow through

Now that you’ve come this far, it would be foolish not to follow through. Don’t just smile and nod and then do nothing. Constructive feedback should lead to action. Be practical. Make a plan. Write down a list of objectives and ways to achieve them. Tick these off as you go. Hold yourself accountable. Accountability is a crucial ingredient to success.

7. Follow up

If everything has gone to plan, you’ve calmly received and considered your constructive criticism. You processed and discussed it. You’ve decided on a plan of action. You’ve executed your plan. Now you need to see if it’s worked. Follow up. Go and see the person who gave the feedback. Show them the new draft. Get a reappraisal. This is an excellent way to measure your success in implementing the suggested adjustments.