How to Get Writing Feedback that Actually Helps by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen

Posted by March 18th, 2014

Thanks_for_the_FeedbackLet’s be honest: when we give a friend, instructor, or editor our writing and ask for “feedback,” what we really want to hear back is this: “Wow!  You actually are a bloody genius.” Or maybe this: “blah blah blah… next great American novel…blah blah blah.” Or simply, “It’s perfect. Don’t change a word.”

Usually — inexplicably — we get something else. Maybe some margin notes (“nicely observed,” “infelicitous” or “confusing?”). Maybe we get a friendly pat on the head (“I’m so proud of you for trying this”) or an entire rewrite (“…too interior.  I’ve reimagined it as a space western.”). Perhaps this is because we are not a bloody genius, or writing the next great American novel. But partly, it might be due to how we ask for feedback in the first place.

The key to getting useful feedback is knowing what kind of feedback you want, and being transparent about what you want and why. The challenge is that the word “feedback” can mean lots of different things. If you don’t tell the person you’re showing your writing to what would be helpful to you, they have no chance of giving you something useful.

In general, it’s useful to make a distinction among three kinds of feedback: Appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. Each has a different purpose, and each has a role to play in improving our writing and craft.

  • Appreciation says, “I see you,” and “I value what you’re doing” and serves to encourage us and keep us motivated. We need to hear that someone believes in us, is on our side, cares about what we’re struggling so hard to create.
  • Coaching includes anything intended to help your writing or manuscript improve – comments on writing style or grammar, questions about word choice, voice, character, plot, theme, suggestions about length, subject matter, etc. You may or may not agree with the coaching, but it’s important to understand it before you decide to accept or reject it.  When they say, “Needs tightening,” do they mean fewer words, more action, or closer juxtaposition of two key ideas?  You need to ask  “How would you ‘tighten it up’? And why do you think I should?”  Too often, coaching is vague and even if we wanted to take their coaching, we wouldn’t be sure how to do so.
  • Finally, evaluation.  This is what you get from an agent or an editor or publisher when they choose to accept or reject a piece of work, and it’s what you get from a teacher who is required to grade you. Sometimes we get evaluation from friends and colleagues, but if that’s the beginning and end of the conversation (“This is great,” or “This isn’t ready”) then it’s probably not going to be very helpful to you.

Traditional publishers have to evaluate you; what you want from friends and fellow Book Country members is encouragement (or appreciation), especially at the beginning, and then a lot of coaching. The following examples will show some different strategies to get the writing feedback you need at different stages of the writing and revision process. You can use these as you use Book Country to develop a book for submission to traditional or self-publishers. Continue reading

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