Evaluating Artist Feedback, Part 1

Whether a musician, author, or other artist, we’ve all received feedback on our work.  Obtaining meaningful feedback is an art all its own.  Sometimes we have to work at it, deciphering comments to figure out what someone means, so I’ve written some observations about this, with examples.

Defining Helpful Feedback

First we should define what useful feedback is and looks like.  Generally it is specific enough that we can take action to correct it (assuming it’s on target).  By contrast, vague feedback leaves us unsure what someone meant or how to address the issue.

Bad Feedback Better Feedback
I don’t like character John John is mean to other characters. If he’s trying to be funny, I was just put off instead.
I don’t like these lyrics These lyrics are negative and depressing, but I otherwise liked the song. Maybe you can write about a more positive subject than addiction.
I didn’t like story ending The story ends abruptly and I felt it was a letdown after the big build up. Maybe you can make that scene longer?
It doesn’t sound good The music is good but the mix is muddy and it’s a “wall of sound” where the texture never thins out before getting fuller again later. That’s fatiguing on my ears.
This isn’t written well Some of the sentences seem a little long and hard to follow. Other times it felt stilted.

The “best feedback” improves on “better feedback” above by actually citing sentences, or in music, giving a timestamp (“at 1:03 it sounds out of tune”).

Constructive Feedback

This has been explained pretty well here (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_constructive_feedback) so I’ll just quote this. “Constructive feedback is letting people know in a helpful way how they are doing, and how their performance is being perceived. Constructive feedback can be positive (letting someone know they’re doing well), negative (letting people know about ways in which they could do better), or neutral (just an objective observation or analysis). “There are two main elements that make feedback (particularly negative feedback) constructive.

  1. The content of the feedback: Constructive feedback is specific, behavior or issue-focused (rather than a value judgment about the individual), based on what is observable (rather than assuming anything about the person’s attitude or motivation), and includes some specific direction on how to make improvements if some are needed.
  2. Most important, how the feedback is delivered. To be constructive, feedback should not be delivered in a manner that provokes resentment, resistance, defensiveness, hurt feelings, shame or a sense of failure. It means not backing the person into a corner with attacks. Honest doesn’t mean tactless. This is where emotional intelligence really makes a difference.”
Destructive Feedback

This is the easiest to give and get.  “That sucks”, “this is stupid”, and “I hate that” are basics.  It usually lack specifics, offers no suggestions for how something can be improved, and uses rude words or ones with negative connotations.  It is often meant to hurt the other person and can include unwarranted, personal attacks.  The recipient usually feels defensive.

Feedback That Doesn’t Tell You Anything

Whether they mean well or not, sometimes people give useless feedback, often because it’s completely lacking in specifics. It depends on who you ask, as a fellow author is more likely to think about the things you do and give better feedback, for example.  You might have to ask for details but still not get anything useful.  It comes with the territory.  Some people won’t care.  Some can’t articulate what they mean.  And some don’t want to hurt your feelings.

To me, the worst thing is vague criticism that makes you second guess yourself and also be unable to fix the problem.  And then you might publish/release it, warts and all, because no one told you what others might be thinking.  It’s like letting your friend go out in public wearing something that makes them look ridiculous. I suspect people are afraid of the “kill the messenger” thing, expecting you to be upset with them for negative comments, so they keep their own neck off the chopping block.

Types of Feedback

This is the easiest feedback to get, and most people can give meaningful help.  For authors, this includes grammar, spelling, and punctuation; college grads are more likely to help with grammar.  For musicians, it includes execution, meaning whether the performance is in time and on tune.


For authors, this includes plot points, theme, and overall feel of a story or its meaning.  For musicians, this means the feel and character of a song, lyrics or the band and what it stands for.  Whether things make sense applies to both. This sort of feedback is more interpretive.  This is an area where people are more likely to give non-specific feedback, such as “I like it”.  People who aren’t in your field (non-authors or musicians) often feel they aren’t qualified to comment on this and won’t, even admitting to this when asked.  I’ve heard some guitarists tell me that they can’t play half as well as me so who are they to criticize?  They’re still a listener of music (and of that genre) and can give this sort of feedback, so I don’t agree with that.

Part 2

Check back next week for part 2, which includes sections on biased feedback, when feedback is not from your target audience, wrong feedback, and feedback that includes bad suggestions or assigns motives to you.

Guitar #1 Finished

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