Getting Feedback Can Hurt—Here’s How to Ask for It

December 29, 2017 § 17 Comments

zz-roger_0991By L. Roger Owens

Asking for feedback on your writing is a delicate dance, the steps tricky to learn, as I was reminded when my eight year-old read me her story the other day.

She ran to me with the unlined pages clutched in her hand. I could see how her impossibly small scrawl sloped down the right side of the page; she had to tilt her head slowly, yoga-like, as she read. The story was a barely veiled display of her deep wish to join the family of a wealthy friend. A protagonist (with my daughter’s name) and seven siblings (one of whom is named after her best friend, their parents named for the friend’s parents), have magical powers, but the use of these powers is stymied when one of the siblings falls from a tree and shatters his arm.

She finished with a smile, and as she held out the story for me to see, I noticed she’d illustrated it as well. A line of children ranged along the bottom of the page, all lavishly eye-lashed and winking.

That’s when she led me into temptation.

“You’re a writer, Dad,” she said. “You can give me some pointers, if you want.” In other words: Here, Dad, take the bait. This could be the last time I ever ask for your feedback.

How easy it would have been for me to declaim on showing versus telling, the importance of eliminating adverbs, writing with specific details (“Did he fall out of a tree or was it an oak?”). And then end my craft talk with a kicker-quote by Annie Dillard or Natalie Goldberg.

But I didn’t.

“Wow! You wrote that?” I said. “Awesome! You don’t need me to give you pointers. Just write what you want and have fun.”

She didn’t need my take on Strunk & White or my parroting Bird by Bird. She needed a cheerleader, a green light. I knew this because I have an eight year-old writer in me, too. I suspect many of us do.

And I’ve learned from experience how to stunt that young writer’s growth: by asking for feedback badly, by asking someone you respect what they think, when you don’t really want to know what they think. When you really want approval, a hearty pat on the back. When you want praise for the stunning metaphor that opens the piece; when you want to be told how the scene about your daughter’s first story moved them to tears; when you want to hear, “Keep up the good work.”

But instead you get words like “clunky,” “clichéd,” “tedious,” words you will never forget, words that will comprise the audio-loop you hear every time you sit down to write, words that crowd out deeper truths like, You should keep at it; Getting this on paper is worth it; What you have to say matters.

But you also know you’ll never get better if you only seek approval.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be an either-or. I’ve discovered there is an art to asking for feedback, and if you learn it, you can get the kind of feedback you need, when you need it. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Honor what your child-writer needs. Even if you’ve been writing for thirty years, acknowledge that there is a tender beginner still inside you who shouldn’t yet enter the harsh world of the critics. This child needs encouragement, so help her find it. Write a note to a trusted friend, and be honest. Say, “I need your support right now—tell me everything that’s right about this essay.” Don’t expect editors to do this for you. They are blunt, to the point; they’ve no time to coddle. So cultivate a community of friends you can trust to respect the needs of your shy, budding writer.

When asking for feedback, be specific. You know it’s true—approbation alone won’t fuel improvement. You eventually need to solicit constructive feedback. Know what you really want, and ask for it with a specific request, like, “I’m struggling to spot any clichés in my prose—can you help me ferret out every last one?” or “I can’t decide how best to begin this essay. Here are three possibilities—what do you see are the relative merits of each?” This kind of targeted request for feedback gives you what you need sans the emotional baggage.

And after a while, when you’ve learned to catch constructive criticism more felicitously, you can hazard the open-ended call: “Tell me everything that can make this essay better!”

Become your own cheerleader. As you grow adept at this dance, you might find your need for approval diminishing, or, better, that you trust yourself enough to offer the right encouragement—the words that help you persevere, the words that catalyze the move from blank screen to first draft, the words that propel you far enough into a piece you find it’s time to risk getting feedback, and—happy surprise!—you’re ready to receive whatever comes.

Yesterday I saw my daughter’s story hanging over the edge of an end table. A yellow sticky note on the front page bore a message from her school librarian: “Dear Mary Clare, Thank you for letting me read your story. I can’t wait to read more about the adventures of this family.”

When I saw it, I congratulated myself. My feedback worked. It hadn’t crushed her spirit, but gave her the confidence that her work was worth showing to another.

And I gave quiet thanks for the librarian’s following suit. No judgement—and no false praise, either. Just a thank you and a big, bright green light: Keep writing, kid.

That’s encouragement I know I still need to hear, even as I learn to trust my own voice to speak it.


Roger Owens teaches spirituality at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He’s written for numerous publications including The Christian Century, Weavings, and Faith & Leadership. He is the author of, among other books, Abba, Give Me a Word: The Path of Spiritual Direction.

§ 17 Responses to Getting Feedback Can Hurt—Here’s How to Ask for It

  • This is a wise and generous post. And a lesson all of us who write need to hear. It is tempting to share our own hard learned lessons of overly-active adjectives, run away sentences, lost story lines; but far better to encourage what works. I made the mistake of crushing a friend’s writing spirit and in the end it hurt us both. Sadly, I learned a lot more from the experience than she did. Finding the one or two good things in the writing is a kind and valuable critique; after all,”just keep writing” is the best advice any writer can give to another.

  • ccbarr says:

    I can not begin to express how the sentence “you know you’ll never get better if you only seek approval” hit me. I can apply this to many areas of my life.

  • Brilliant. The eight-year-old in me is occasionally found hiding under the bed whining and sucking up dust bunnies.

    I used to tell a story on myself, only the first time I failed to follow your advice when it came to my own children. My then 7th grade son brought me an essay and asked me to respond. Did he want everything I could find? Yes, he claimed, he did. May I use pen to mark corrections? Yes. So I did. When I handed the paper back to him, it was littered with notes in green ink. He held it for a moment, scanning my corrections and questions. Is this what you do to your students’ papers? he asked. Yes, I said. Okay, he said. He brightened somewhat and turned away to work further on the paper.

    When teaching my students to peer edit, I always tell my students to do three things: correct, question, and compliment. If we know what we are doing well, we can do more of that.

  • equipsblog says:

    I love this post. The “Eight year old writer inside us” is the perfect metaphor about why criticism is so hard for many of us. It also offers the best pathway I have seen so far about how to get to the point we are open to the type of critique that most of us need to improve. I took several children’s writing classes at UCSD extension. My favorite teacher, Sarah Thomp, would have us critique each other’s writings in class. We had to start with 3 things we liked about the piece and then phrase the criticisms as questions. The feedback was usually honest and occasionally brutal, but this approach could blunt the worst of the why don’t “they” like my writing. She also offered the advice that you don’t have to agree with the critiques, but let them marinate for a while. They may prove helpful for future revisions. Of course there groups where different individuals love the same points that others hate.

  • equipsblog says:

    Reblogged this on e-Quips and commented:
    This is one the best postings I have ever read on how to accept criticism. It acknowledges the “eight year old writer” that still live in most of us. We can start with asking for specific criticism and then work up to where we can accept open criticism on how to improve our work.

  • bethfinke says:

    Great post. Serves as a helpful reminder to those of us asked to give feedback as well. Keep writing, kid.


  • […] know how they’re doing. Feedback often comes in many forms. L. Roger Owens’ article, Getting Feedback Can Hurt—Here’s How to Ask for It can help soften the blow and show you how to solicit the type of feedback you want or […]

  • We all need encouragement every day. The eight-year-old writer and artist never leaves us. Thanks for this kind and nurturing post.

  • “Keep writing, kid.” That is all of it! So good. Thanks for writing this and sharing it here.

  • corazon181 says:

    Excellent advice. Most of my stories come from the point of view of an eight year old. Because, there is where I exist in my happy place. Yet, I know the value of asking for a specific type of critique. I’m working on being my own cheerleader and sometimes, I jump so high, but i’m not there to catch myself. When I fall, I fall hard and it take time for me to get back up and write again. Thank you for your post, it has helped me to see myself as the eight year old again. I will go, write and be happy. In time, I will edit and receive critique. Happy New Year.

  • Ooh, this was a great and much-needed read. Constructive feedback is something we all need to know more, but encouraging feedback, too. My mom just sent me a screenplay she wrote and I’ve been holding off on reading it–partly because I have a defensive reaction to anything she says or writes (which I’m trying to get over), and partly because I don’t know if she wants feedback or what kind. She probably does, but I just don’t know.

    But what you wrote here is a good start to keep in mind. I’ve avoided the work because we’re like porcupines around each other when it comes to writing (she’s been critical of my stuff before, and she got huffy when I told her grammar errors…when that was specifically what she was asking for in her newsletters). But I guess it’s worth a shot to try now. I haven’ read or reviewed anything else she’s published the past few years…maybe this one will break the ice.

  • Marcia Krueger says:

    All of this is full of wisdom, but the best part is your acknowledgement of the child in us all, a child we don’t need to be ashamed to say we still have in us. When an established author says this it means we are not “taking a trip to namby-pamby land” by avoiding harsh criticism.

  • Margaret says:

    Reblogged this on Not really that creative and commented:
    Here’s a lovely piece that I thought was worth sharing. I still cringe when I think of the time that I corrected the grammar in a poem lovingly presented to me by my partner. I’m still wary about giving feedback and always try to be both kind and constructive, but this article gives me more options.

  • […] Getting Feedback Can Hurt — Here’s How to Ask for It :: Brevity […]

  • […] this post on Brevity’s nonfiction blog really spoke to me.  L. Roger Owens frames the whole […]

  • Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Today’s re-blog just might be the most BALANCED writing advice I’ve ever read…

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