Getting Feedback Can Hurt—Here’s How to Ask for It
December 29, 2017 § 16 Comments
By 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.