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.

Let’s imagine that you’re a longtime writer, but mostly of Historical Fiction.  You’ve long felt you had a Memoir inside you, and have been working on it in fits and starts for several years. You’ve now finally fleshed out an opening that gets your blood running with excitement.  If this is the first time you are showing it to other human beings, you’ll want to be thoughtful about what you might ask for and why.

“You are the first people I’m showing this chapter to.  Right now, I’m looking for encouragement.  Can you just tell me three things you like about it?” 

How could this possibly be useful?  One reason is that it heads off their list of twelve things you need to fix. They’re probably right, of course, and you’ll be ready for that eventually, but if you’re at that stage where you need encouragement, getting some appreciation actually will help. Especially if they are able to identify some specific things they like about it: “I love the voice” or “I laughed out loud at this point” or “The perspective changing was masterful!”  These might be the things you know work or they might be the things you’re worried about, but either way, it tells you that a cold reader “gets” what you’re trying to do on these particular fronts.

And after all, if you’re writing was truly and completely terrible, they would find some way to tell you that (“I really loved your margins!”).

Just having someone to talk to about the project, someone on your side, can get you through a period of self-doubt or writer’s block and help you keep going, which is probably the most important thing you need right now.

On Book Country, members often ask specifically for coaching, some as specific as the Author Note below:

“I’m almost finished with this.  I’m looking for a couple very specific reactions to a couple very specific questions.  Here they are [___].  So this means that I don’t want feedback about how I should start over or retell the opening in the second person and main character has to be male.   I’m just looking for your thoughts on these specifics points.”

This helps your reader narrow their focus.  They won’t waste time doing a lot of work on your project that you aren’t interested in, and you’ll avoid the frustration of explaining why you aren’t interested in their big picture thoughts.  That’s good for your project and good for your relationship. Another example of an Author’s Note that asks for coaching feedback might look like this:

“Several of my friends have liked this, but they were in my Fiction MFA program and think about this stuff all the time.  I’m interested in feedback from members who are really familiar with the Memoir or Nonfiction genres. So, literally, you could say anything from, ‘I enjoyed this, here’s why,’ to ‘I would never read something like this, here’s why.’   And both would be helpful.”

Here you’re being specific not only about what kind of feedback that would be helpful (evaluation from a Memoir reader) but also about why you’re asking this person for feedback. They don’t have to read it as if they liked fiction. You’re not asking them to imagine how much someone else would like it. They should read it as themselves. By telling them in advance that you wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t like it, you are giving them permission to be honest, and language for how to do that.  It’s not that it’s “bad,” it’s that it’s not their thing.  That’s easier to hear, and if you’re interested in finding out, then you have to ask.

Another great example for how to get coaching feedback would be this:

“I’m in the middle of this project and I’m feeling generally good about it.  I am going to finish it no matter what, but I’m a little uncertain of the direction right now.  Any reactions you have would be useful, from line edits all the way up to comments about whether the characters and plot are working.  I’m totally open to changing the whole thing around.” 

This gives your reader free reign to offer any kind of thoughts or assistance.  Almost.  If you ask for the above, the one kind of comment you probably don’t want to hear is, “This stinks, give up.”  You’ve said you’re going to finish the project, so any feedback that will move you in that direction is fair game.

So where do you ask for this feedback on Book Country?

When you are uploading a manuscript for workshop in your dashboard on Book Country, you’ll see a mandatory input field in the Book Details section where you add your “Author’s Note.” Ask for the kind of feedback you want here, and it appear next to your manuscript where members will read it before they review your work-in-progress. (Click on the image to expand example.)

Author Note Screenshot


About Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone

sheila heen douglas stoneSheila Heen and Douglas Stone teach negotiation and communication at Harvard. They are coauthors of two books: Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Even When It Is Off Base, Unfair, Poorly Delivered, and Frankly, You’re Not in the Mood (Viking / Penguin, 2014) and Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Penguin, 2010 2nd ed). Connect with the authors on Goodreads and Facebook.

How should you respond to a low-rated review on Book Country? Join the discussion here.

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