Friday, August 20, 2010

On giving feedback

This quote by Paul Czege, author of My Life With Master, contains a nugget of such concentrated wisdom that I wanted to share it all with you. Let's discuss feedback:

Many years ago, years before I ever found my creative medium in RPG design, I dated a quite intelligent woman. I would show her my fictions and nonfictions and tell her about my ideas. And she would provide constructive criticism, upon which I could base improvements. Because, of course, the world ignores works which aren't excellent. That, or it rides roughshod upon them with cruel hooves.

There is a great deal of generally accepted wisdom about the value of constructive criticism that I now believe is bullshit. The institution of "constructive criticism" in creative communities is born of anxious, self-serving neuroticism and white-knuckled paternalism.

Danielle taught me that I need none of it. It does nothing but keep me from wielding the full force of my creative powers. What I need is feedback that puts energy into my efforts. What I need is feedback that helps me see the full elephant, to understand the meaning of the whole beast that has yet only a crude shape under my mortal hands. I am already scrutinous and critical enough of my creative efforts. What I need is feedback that strips away the bullshit that's holding me back, empowers and armors me against the certain doubts and contrary notions of others, and gives me energy and momentum.

Look at this game you have, find the love you have for it, and instead of criticism give it the feedback it really needs.

The keys, for me, is 'feedback that puts energy into my efforts' and 'feedback that helps me understand the meaning' of the thing I've created: the implications I haven't drawn out and what it can potentially become.

There's an uneasy course to navigate here, between telling someone what you would do with their idea vs. telling them what you think their idea could be, but done well you can be a valuable member of a creator's support team.

There are a couple of other relevant posts to check out on this topic:

  + Seth Godin uses his graph-fu to explain the value of the green dot (someone who's cheering us on, showing how great it will be when we finish and share our creations with our audience)

  + Alex Epstein talks about great feedback here. He emphasises the importance of developing your own 'giving feedback' skills.

So I open the floor to you. Tips for giving good feedback? What sort of feedback do you prefer? Do these quotes and articles strike something in you like they did for me?


Simon said...

I think I'm not a good collaborator. Or at least, with games, I find it very hard to engage on a level that's not "let me show you how to make that better". My instinct is to tinker, where that's usually not what's needed. Maybe on things where I don't have such strong opinions, I'd give better feedback. Show me a script some time and we'll find out.

That said, I've really enjoyed working with you on the game that dare not speak its name. You're pretty good at saying "here's a problem that I think needs a solution" as well as "here's what's working for me". It's been very productive for me.

Steve Hickey said...

In fact, jamming with you on your game was one of the examples I had in mind when I read that quote. (Also: giving Jenni feedback on her novel, 'What's the Worst that can Happen'.)

In both cases, the value of what you're doing is totally clear to me, and I feel like I'm acting more as a cheerleader and someone who's pointing out its potential (rather than a critiquer).

I feel like that's the role (cheerleader, potential-pointer) you're playing for me with Left Coast, by the way.

Let me ask you: why do you think your instinct is to tinker rather than collaborate?


Also, I'm away for the weekend. I hope the conversation continues! I'll pop back in on Monday.

Simon said...

I think my urge to tinker is maybe part of my general megalomania. Or maybe it's just that when I get excited by an idea, my mind just starts working on it of its own accord.

Left Coast is interesting. I love the idea, but I have like, zero clue how to make it. That's pretty good insulation against tinkering.

Anonymous said...

I like your feedback Steve! You've got a handle on the positivity and the gentle nudging to show me the whole elephant for sure.

Morgan said...

i have been thinking about this

wanted to acknowledge that in a comment

even if the comment is without substance

as this one is

Mashugenah said...

Like Morgue, I thought a bit about this. But, substance follows. :)

I have always enjoyed giving feedback more than producing work. I think I enjoy helping someone fix their creation more than creating something myself - I find it has a very high effort to reward ratio. I particularly like playtesting games, though I also got immense enjoyment from reading and advising on the couple of major writing projects that have come my way.

In my professional context, this has positioned me as a mentor/guru to all the graduates, and probably the major sounding board for both the other senior engineers. I like to think I give good advice, good feedback for them. I find that I primarily dish out advice in the form of helping people remove blinkers so that they can do what's perfectly obvious to do, but hadn't thought of for some or other reason.

I have, conversely, found it impossible to do any sustained collaboration with anyone on any writing or other project. I can't compartmentalize work and shop bits off to other people. In the context of a collaboration rather than advising, I can't offer good insight or new perspectives. I find it hard to get on top of communicating my part of a project to someone else.

Partly that's because the way I write (and calculate) is to fiddle around with peripheral bits'n'pieces until I've got the whole thing arranged in my head, and then produce all the work all at once, in sequence. In my own work I can't write chunks and stitch them together - I can only write what I see as the whole picture.

My experiences at seeking and receiving feedback are too variable to easily summarize or synthesize. I think that in general, I really only seek and accept superficial feedback on the details, and generally only once I've produced the entirety of the work already. I find that the "finishing touches" are where I struggle to sustain energy, and seeking feedback at that stage motivates me to actually do those finishing touches.