Criticism of your work can feel harsh or like an attempt to attack your work (instead of an attempt to help it), and the way in which it’s presented can help a lot.
Please leave your favorite suggestions for making criticism more productive in the comments! I’m also starting a comment thread to surface good writing on the topic.
I wrote this before the recent post by Omega was published. I’ll be writing more on productive criticism later, and comments here could help. I think this is an important topic because criticism can be extremely helpful — or quite harmful — depending on how we approach it. I’d be excited to see us help people engage with it in healthier ways. Thanks to everyone who’s already been writing about this!
8 tips for productive criticism
1. Think about whether you can reframe your points as suggestions or ideas rather than purely negative “criticism.”
To illustrate why this can be useful, consider the following things someone could send me about the Forum Digest:
- Negative criticism: “The digest has become too long. I think lots of people dislike that.”
- Suggestion: “Have you considered making the digest shorter? I think some people prefer that, and it seems like something you could test.”
I would personally find it easier to engage with the second option, which means I could more easily realize that the person reaching out has a good point, or I could ask some follow-up questions if those would help — without everything feeling pretty aversive.
2. If you can, express some agreement and something that you appreciate about the people’s work (alongside the criticism).
Using the Digest example again:
- Blunt: “The digest has become much too long. I’ve stopped reading past the first three lines. You should really cut it down.”
- With a note of appreciation/understanding: “Thanks so much for sending the Digest every week! I value it, so I’m sharing some feedback. I think it’s become much too long. I understand that it must be hard to cut down the list of posts to share, but I’ve stopped reading past the first three lines.”
The agreement or appreciation can be something that you think is normal or minor, as even acknowledging something like that can help. For instance:
- “I can see that you really care about having a positive impact via your work, which I really appreciate. I’m worried about some aspects of your project and I’m sharing more on this below, but I just wanted to start by noting that I’m grateful that you’re putting your energy into this broad goal.”
I think you can do this as part of giving context for why you’re writing your criticism — often, this will be because you actually care about the general goals of the people whose work you’re criticizing.
3. Think about whether you should share this privately instead of publicly.
Public criticism can be really important; it can hold people and organizations accountable, helps stress-test ideas and practices, shares lessons across different situations, etc. But some criticism would be better shared in private, especially when you (the critic) are less sure of what you’re saying and your main goal is to improve the work and help the people doing it to be more effective in the future. Private criticism is also often easier for the person/people being criticized to engage with.
Here are some reasons to criticize privately instead of publicly (this is not an exhaustive list):
- You’re hitting down (or it might feel like you’re hitting down) — e.g. you have power or authority that the people you’re criticizing don’t have
- You’re quite unsure of the conclusions you’ve reached (maybe you are lacking important context, or you’re just wondering about something), and you might accidentally misinform readers, or there’s something potentially quite sensitive here
- In such cases you might reach out privately to understand the situation better, then post a public note about what you were worried about and what you learned
- The criticism is of something very personal or private
- The person/people are having a hard time or are already being criticized a lot in public, and you don’t want to add to this
- You don’t want to write a full post that explains the context, etc.
4. Criticize a product or a way of doing something, not the person.
- Criticizing people: “I think you’re pretty undisciplined; the Digest is consistently too long.”
- Criticizing actions: “I think you should make the Digest shorter.”
5. Be kind. Remember that there are real humans on the other side of the criticism.
6. Try to suggest improvements, instead of only pointing out problems.
- Only problems: “It’s too long. I’ve stopped reading past the first three lines.”
- Suggesting improvements: “Maybe you could shorten the digest? If you’re worried about missing posts that are highly relevant to some readers, have you considered letting people customize the email that they get, or linking to a longer version in a shorter email that goes to everyone?”
7. Keep in mind that you might be missing relevant context, and communicate your uncertainty on this front.
The people you’re criticizing might have already tried what you’re suggesting or have extra information that you don’t know about which means their approach is better than you think. (Obviously, it’s absolutely possible that this is not the case! But sometimes it will be.)
Using the Digest example again:
- Certainty: “The Digest is too long. You should really cut it down.”
- Allowing for the possibility of being wrong: “As a reader, I would prefer for the Digest to be shorter. It’s possible that you’ve checked, and more people prefer longer digests — or there’s some other consideration that I’m missing — but I wanted to flag this in case it helps.”
8. Be specific. Explicitly flag the boundaries of the criticism — say, “I think this part of the project is performing poorly, but these other parts seem useful.”
Using the Digest example again:
- Vague: “The Digest has gotten worse.” Or even, “The Digest is too long.”
- Specific: “The last few Digest emails have had too many links for me; I got overwhelmed and checked out after looking at the first three links of each. To be clear, I really like that there’s a Digest and generally appreciate your selection of posts! I’m just writing about the length.”
Let’s collect more tips
This isn’t an exhaustive list! I can sketch out more tips that seem helpful, but I’d love for readers to share tips that you think are especially useful, potentially with an example or a note about why you think this is a useful tip.
My post doesn't add a ton on top of the original post, which I really appreciate (and recently shared as a classic in the Forum digest), but it was shared 8 years ago, so many people haven't seen it, and I think we can build on it.
You can also see other tips — not all about “productive” criticism specifically — in the resource for criticisms and red-teaming that I co-authored a while back. (These include notes on hitting up, focusing on important topics, and trying to be aware of previous work.)
This is something I was a bit sad about with the Criticism Contest; I think it encouraged people to view some things through the criticism lens, when those things were actually suggestions, research building on older research, or the like.
- Consider asking if the person is up for taking some criticism before sharing it.
- Check that this hasn't been discussed before.
- If you're unsure about whether you should share something, run it past a friend first.
- Check that you're sharing this for a reason you endorse. (More.)