Ma’ayan Plaut, from RadioPublic, wrote what I consider to be one of the best go-to articles for handling criticism, not just as a podcaster, but as a listener. In it, she doesn’t just give a list of do’s and don’ts, but she also digs into what exactly it means to be critical. Let’s take a peek at that definition:
“Criticism” sounds like it’s all bad, but the best kind of criticism is one that closely examines what is there (and what is not) and uses what they’ve heard to build their own creation: a response of love, of care, and of appreciation. Constructive criticism helps creative work reach new heights never seen before, based on a close collaboration between a consumer and a creator.
When I say I’m a critic, sometimes I have to keep from cringing, because I’m worried the person I’m talking to is immediately going to associate that word with negativity and dragging people’s art through the muck. I’m associated with the grumpy person leaving baffling one-star reviews on iTunes or Yelp. But it is is known that critics and formalizing a language of criticism in any field are necessary parts of legitimizing and validating a field, and helping it grow and prosper and to reach a wider audience. This can get dicey; my work often results in one of the biggest comments I get is that I’m part of “cheerleader culture”. (What a fun term! It means to be uncritical and never examine the flaws or gaps in a work, whether due to personal association or just being “too kind”.)
There’s a balance that must be struck in podcasting, whose criticism scene is decidedly nascent still, between 1) podcasters developing the skill to deconstruct critique, even that written by strangers on iTunes, 2) podcast listeners learning how to give kind, thoughtful critique that supports and encourages creators, and 3) podcast critics (at all stages of their critic experience) figuring out where and how to best deliver critique, in a way that is kind, helpful, and also examines their own biases, hopefully before they even publish it anywhere.
These are some pretty tall orders! It’s a lot of practicing radical empathy, which always makes room for improvement, and a lot of practice (and faith in humankind, which may be considered a dwindling resource these days). Plaut’s article goes into superb detail on all kinds of tactics podcasters and listeners should be employing; I’m going to create a couple of lists here specifically with points that I heard at this year’s Association of Writers and Writers’ Programs conference (#AWP19), some of which came from experienced critics who have been doing this for way longer than I have, that I think are invaluable not just to people publishing critique professionally, but to anyone writing a review anywhere that could impact the audience and the creator.
- If it’s obviously racist, sexist, homophobic, what have you, throw that in the trash. These aren’t people you want to spend time on. If it seems to be having a severe impact on either your audience or your own mental health, find reviewers who may be accepting pitches, or even reach out to a trusted colleague. Get some feedback you can trust.
- Remember that there is some difference between a critique published in a paper or an outlet and a more casual review elsewhere. They should be treated differently. Primarily, casual reviews on social media will require a lot more picking apart; these are generally reviews that start with “I like/dislike/hate/love”, and that means you have to dig deep. If someone says “I love this character”, that could mean your writing and acting have paid off for this person, and you should think about what it is you’ve done that’s made it lovable. If someone says “I really don’t like the addition of [a plot element]”, that could mean something’s gone wrong with its introduction or the way its been folded in to the story. If it’s “I can’t understand this person”, it’s time to figure out if it’s because they’re being kind of racist with an accent, or if your sound quality needs improvement.
- Ask questions! You may get details you didn’t ever consider. Ask for improvements, and also the great things you should never get rid of. You may discover something people love that you didn’t even think about as an element to keep.
- Caveat the First: don’t bother people incessantly and keep a boundary between you and your listeners. Don’t slide into their DMs. I totally recommend a survey.
- Caveat the Second: consider alternatives if this doesn’t jive with the way you want to make your art. It’s your art. If you want to check in with your intended audience, find a way that works for you. If you want to just make your art, make your freaking art; I’m not here to impose the structures of capitalism on you. Just remember that your audience is working within the bounds of capitalism for the most part, and you may want to consider what that means for how you gain and retain an audience.
- Practice. Go to reviews you’ve already received, and think about them. Pull out what’s important, what’s salient, and what’s actionable. Be honest with yourself, but also be kind to yourself.
Reviewers and Critics:
- Consider the impact of your words. Plenty of critics at #AWP19 agreed that panning a debut novel, for instance, helps no one—so why would you pan a debut podcaster? Just don’t do it. There are people on the other end of that thing.
- Be specific. If you just say things like “I didn’t like [x]”, that’s not actually helpful! Say why. If you’re uncomfortable with explaining why you don’t like it, consider why that is. There may be a bias there that you’re not consciously aware of or ignoring.
- Don’t open your review with negativity—unless they really deserve it, a phrase from one panelist who was indicating how we should respond to racist, sexist, ableist, and homo/transphobic works. Opening a review for a work that’s clearly a first, a new endeavor, with “this isn’t the best” or “this wasn’t great”, especially when you then go on to describe later that these flaws can all be improved through practice and time, alienates audiences unnecessarily. (I never do that, because I never want to assume, especially on the internet and in the age of the digital hustle, that someone has the time to read through my entire review and hasn’t just skimmed it).
How do you deliver constructive criticism? In the digital realm, knowing where it’s acceptable to do that, and when it isn’t, has become even more complex. Make sure you’re putting it somewhere expected if you haven’t been specifically asked. How do you receive criticism? It’s never fun to get negative notes, but it’s imperative to improving your craft. Set up trusted colleagues or friends to listen to your work before your publish, to read it before you record, and that way you can catch the glaring errors or the things you can work on for next time. Ma’ayan Plaut’s article has been one of my guiding stars; I recommend it for you as well!
This essay was originally published in Audio Dramatic #27, April 1, 2019.