The gut punch that is feedback and criticism

How seven creatives helped me reframe my thinking around art, vulnerability and rejection

“It’s just… not good.”

The year was 2010. I was a first-year uni student and I’d just submitted my first creative writing piece for review. I had poured hours and energy into the piece, and it stung — a lot! — to be called out in front of the class.

The lecturer? A wizened journo with decades of writing experience under his belt and permanent ink stains under his fingernails from years on the newspaper press.

The worst part? He was right. The piece took several turns and ended up, well, nowhere really. In short, it was pretty boring. Certainly not the work of creative genius I thought it was.

Almost fifteen years later, I still struggle with criticism of my creative work. “You’ve missed the brief”, “The client doesn’t like it”, and “It’s not really what we’re looking for” all feel like a nice big stomp all over my vulnerable little writer’s soul.

The thing is, I know that the feedback process — and my ability to handle it well—is the key to running a successful creative agency. This week, I put a call out to some fellow creatives for help dealing with the emotional side of the feedback process. The practical side I can deal with—I know the right questions to ask to ensure we get the copy in good shape and get a great sign-off from the client. But the emotional hangover — it’s killing me slowly. I needed help. Here’s what I learned.

1. Hold your work out in front of you, like a pizza box 🍕

As creatives, we often pour our heart and soul into our work. I think about client projects all the time and often get my best ideas when I’m in the shower, playing with my kids, or on the reformers at Pilates. The work melds with your life and your life melds with your work. It’s messy.

So when clients reject your work, it feels like they’re rejecting you.

“Sometimes I have to physically hold the work out in front of me. Like it’s a box of pizza,” business coach, Laura, advised me. “And when I receive criticism or feedback, it’s on the thing I’m holding — not on me personally.”

2. Remember that feedback is a kindness, not an attack

“The point is to deliver something the client’s happy with,” advised Gemma, florist and wedding stylist at Sub Subtle Studio. “So if they say they aren’t happy, this is actually an opportunity to figure out why so you can fix it (rather than them just taking their business elsewhere).”

This hits.

As an agency owner, I’m very aware that providing feedback requires lots of time, energy and thoughtfulness. When I receive work that I don’t like, the easy option is to simply move on without providing feedback. The kind option is to work with them to make the work better, help them grow, and give them space to stretch their skills.

3. Make it the most important part of the process

For a long time, I viewed the revisions part of the copywriting process as the final 10% — something to get out of the way so I could get paid. These days, I’ve reframed my thinking and now view projects as completely iterative and collaborative. Sometimes the first draft is just that — a first draft. Something to get the process started.

Fellow copywriter, Anita Siek of Wordfetti agrees.

“At the heart of any great project is constructive feedback, and also an environment for both the client and the writer to be comfortable in not only communicating with each other, but with mutual respect.

So tldr? Define what the objective for the copy is, and create an environment where you both can speak openly, transparently, in the realm of feedback to get closer and closer to that objective.”

4. Remember that ‘good’ is in the eye of the beholder

Recently, I completed two crazily creative projects for two wildly different clients. There was one similarity. The work was good. I had stretched myself to the absolute limit with both pieces and had produced work I was proud of.

The clients weren’t happy. I felt completely deflated.

“Copy is subjective,” writes fellow copywriter Cou of Sunny + Flow. “What one person thinks is good is not what another person thinks is good, and that’s okay. That’s why we have a revision process, so we can get it right for them.”

Elora of Dot Point Proofreading agrees. “Try to remember that we’re both on the same side — we want the work to be good,” she advised me. “We might just have slightly different ways of getting there, and slightly different definitions of ‘good’. 🫠”

5. Actions speak louder than words

These days, as a white label copywriter for agencies, I don’t get the enthusiastic, sometimes teary responses that I used to get when I worked 1:1 with small business owners. If I get a “nice work” or even a “thanks” then I know I’m doing well. But these same account managers turn around and brief me on their next project. And the next. And the next.

“I OFTEN don’t get gushy emails that I think I deserve,” advised family photographer Stacey. “But those clients who say nothing will upgrade their gallery, rebook me for their next session, and recommend their friends. The point is, actions speak louder than words when it comes to feedback.”

Cou agrees: “The clients who are the less gushy always send the most referrals my way. We all have different love languages. 😂”

6. The creatives who stay in business for the long haul can accept criticism graciously, and then move on

Whenever I feel discouraged about feedback, I think of a copywriter I met in my first year of business. She had been freelancing for a few years, but had stopped writing for over a year — completely paralysed into inaction.

The culprit? Unfair client criticism.

“I’m hearing you!” replied Brooke, florist and founder of The Posy Post. “I’m in year nine of business and if we still have the littlest complaint, I’m so offended. You really just need to take action, work it out and then just move on. Don’t waste the emotional energy.”

Moving on. It was the major theme of the advice I was given. Feedback, criticism — it’s all a part of the creative process. The ones who win don’t let it get to them.

“I swear if someone said, ‘I don’t like that,’ all I heard was I hate you, you’re an awful person. It’s just not true. You could literally produce the most amazing piece of work in the whole wide world and someone will not like it. It’s just always going to be a fact,” wrote Gemma.

And a bonus tip, from Bandit Heeler

This article has taken me months to write. Wrestling with criticism, feedback, misunderstandings and messiness is the part that I find hardest about agency life.

Some of my advisors (listed above) told me that taking on criticism was like growing callouses — painful at first, but over time you become impervious to the stings. In my experience, that’s not quite true.

And I don’t think I want it to be true.

Recently, I was watching Bluey with my kids and thinking about all of this. I was just coming off a particularly hard season where I’d pushed myself creatively, and, in turn, had to deal with quite a lot of rejection and feedback. It was really difficult.

But then Bandit Heeler came to the rescue in an episode called Stickbird. If you’ve seen Season 3, you’ll know that Bandit (superdad of Bluey) is dealing with some grown-up stuff. We don’t quite know what he’s been going through, but we know it’s really hard and it’s getting him down.

In this episode, his other kid, Bingo, has to deal with the fact that some kids have ruined a creation of hers. Bandit gets it. And he gets me too. He says:

‘When you put something beautiful out into the world it doesn’t really belong to just you anymore.’

And, to be honest, that pretty much sums it all up.