Useful feedback: 3 essential rules
For writers, no days drag on longer than days without feedback from your editor. You’ve sent him a 1,200-word document that reflect some facet of your very self, and your editor will be returning it to you with comments and criticisms. He may suggest a different tone. He may suggest you amputate paragraphs that “aren’t doing anything.” Some editors rewrite your sentences for you. Very rarely will an editor remark that what you’ve done is just fine as is.
When I began writing professionally, that’s what I thought I wanted: an editor’s immediate approval. Creating something for public consumption made me feel naked, and reassurance that I was on the right track was welcome. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that feedback that risked hurting my feelings was more constructive in the long run. It could help me improve, for one. My friends could be relied upon to tell me my work was wonderful. A useful editor would tell me nice try, but try again. Or I see what you’re trying to do here, but it’s not coming across.
Thinking about how to give good feedback is important because so much can go wrong. Speak too harshly and people might quit their project. Deliver your opinions too gently, too obliquely, and they might not recognize that you’re actually delivering some trenchant criticism. As a young book editor myself, I made the mistake of rambling on to a writer about all the many little things I thought could be improved in his manuscript when the real truth was I thought it was ill-conceived from the ground up and beyond salvaging—only I was too big of a coward to say so. I stopped giving these lengthy but small-bore critiques that ignored the big picture when someone returned months later with a freshly revised manuscript, with all those little things addressed, sure now that nothing stood between him and a book contract. Unfortunately in this case I hadn’t even given him any advice that would help him improve his craft, not really. I’d only wasted months of his time. We both ended up feeling bad, though I’m sure he more than me.
In the main, useful feedback is honest. It also:
- Is highly specific.
- Contains advice that’s applicable beyond the project at hand. It carries wisdom you can apply toward future projects.
- Is encouraging. While critical, it is never so harsh that the creator decides to give up.
Yes, the feedback I gave when I was a novice book editor was filled with details, but it wasn’t meaningfully specific. Now, when I critique a manuscript, I isolate exactly which parts succeed, which don’t, and right there—in the margins, in tracked changes—offer alternative phrasing. This takes 10 times longer than just presenting a list of complaints. But delivering this level of specificity is great discipline for a feedback giver, because it means you can’t get away with lazily saying, “I like it!” or “Maybe try making it funnier.” Instead, you point out precisely the elements you like and red-flag the jokes that don’t land.
If you can explain why the joke’s not landing, then you can fulfill the second criteria of useful feedback—i.e. you’re not just dispensing your opinions, but sharing applicable knowledge. If you can’t provide some reference, precedent, or bit of wisdom, you should consider passing on the job of giving feedback. In such instances it’s perfectly fine to say, “I’m not really qualified here. Can I help you in other ways?”
Meeting the third criteria is trickiest, because being encouraging isn’t all smiley-faces and exclamation points.
I have a frighteningly analytical friend who, thanks to a PhD in economics and years of storytelling in front of live audiences, thinks of useful feedback in terms of efficiency. He wants to know what advice will lead someone to the optimal result the fastest, with the least amount of fuss. And the answer he’s arrived at is, it depends—largely on timing.
Recommend a wholesale rewrite to someone who thinks they’re nearly finished, and there’s a significant chance they’ll be offended and ignore even good advice.
Guidance given closer to the start of a project (when there’s still time and energy left to undertake big shifts in direction) is more likely to be heeded. But any feedback giver should consider timing on a larger scale. The useful adviser has to know—and if they don’t know, ask—how far along in their development (personal and professional) is this person I’m giving feedback to?
When someone has minimal experience, there’s less of a chance that a feedback recipient will take guidance poorly. Imagine you’re making strawberry shortcake with a four-year-old. The four-year-old will probably spill flour all over the counter, and you’ll be correcting and guiding, maybe even gently placing your hand over his, but chances are the kid won’t mind that much. He knows he’s less than capable of producing strawberry shortcake entirely on his own.
When working with someone who already “knows what they’re doing,” however, you have to coat your advice with careful praise. The potential to bruise an ego is everywhere. The quickest constructive feedback—that’s not quite right, do this instead—is not ideal in such cases; in fact, it’s almost certain to invite pushback.
People who are competent but not masterful tend to be the most sensitive to criticism. Anyone giving feedback to someone who’s good but not great, never mind in the fourth quarter of their project timeline, had better be a master of diplomacy.
Over time, I’ve discovered that many creative people are highly self-critical. The author Jonathan Franzen once said his books were “minefields of sentences and word choices I regret.” The author John Banville described rereading his first novel many years later as “an appalling experience… I can’t bear to revisit my own work. I physically can’t bear it… I went through [the novel] with one eye shut, reading through splayed fingers.” Knowing and experiencing this phenomenon—not alongside these writers but equally talented ones—helped me speak more generously to people sweating from the effort of trying to make something new and good.
Useful feedback never piles on criticism under the misguided idea that it’s the feedback giver’s job to keep creators humble. The effort involved in creation can be humbling enough.
What was the most helpful piece of feedback you have ever received? Why was it so useful? Tell us your stories, the more detailed the better. Stories of spectacularly unhelpful or boorish feedback are also welcome. Please write to Megan Hustad at email@example.com with any you’d care to share.
The Useful series by Megan Hustad will explore the simplest, most efficient ways to reconsider and adjust how we behave in our professional lives.
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