Not there yet? The secret of giving writing (or any) feedback
Comments must fit the purpose of the writing
I have reviewed and revised much journalism, content and creative writing over the years and there is one comment I won’t make. I will never say nothing can be salvaged here. A piece of writing can be improved or it can be a helpful learning exercise, or both.
It’s not easy to judge how to deliver comments. One of the most effective yet encouraging ways to give feedback is to say, ‘Not there yet’. Those three words convey that you should carry on, that you can there and that you have got a lot of things right.
Sometimes healing writing is all you need
Teaching one of my first workshops, I had to extract meaning from a participant’s extraordinary stream of consciousness. It would have failed every English grammar test and been challenging to edit. I focused on the mood which was powerful and asked if it felt good to write this way. Yes it did, she said.
The feedback I gave one of my students in a prestigious journalism program was to strip back her writing and rebuild. She admitted loading her writing with big words to get more marks in school English assessments. I believed she was young enough to transform her writing. A feeling of liberation passed over her face as I sat beside her and showed in one paragraph the words that could be cut out.
For clients, I have unravelled and rebuilt stories. In newspapers, I’ve edited stories to a precise length, ensuring nothing is fake — in almost no time on deadline. This is no comment on the writer or journalist. If you are out covering a breaking story that’s dangerous or complicated, you will be doing your best.
Feedback is not a personality assessment
While coming to understand people’s personalities is informative, particularly for ourselves and in team efforts, effective feedback is not a comment on the personality of the writer. Feedback is intended as a sign of belief in them and their potential to progress in their work.
I admire people who have the courage to receive feedback on their writing
It is best to seek this after a full draft and a revision or two. It is foolish to avoid feedback until the pieces appears on the printed or digital page.
Even when people have worked hard on a piece and carefully considered structure, tone, content, pace and refined it, many still have doubts about their work. It’s normal.
I too am nervous before pressing the send button. Every time.
At the end of workshops, or mentoring sessions, or client meetings where we have worked through a piece of writing people ask one question more than any other.
But is it [my writing] any good?
In giving feedback, I tell the person that the reason is not because I think their work is unworthy. It is the opposite! They have begun something that I believe it to be in their interest and their ability to complete and to learn from.
Sometimes the comments may help find a new way to write the piece.
- It might only be a matter of rearrangement.
- Or I might identify a missing element or two.
- In fiction or memoir, it might be a shortfall or a surplus of action, description or dialogue.
- Or if it’s content, you might need a switch in tone and voice, from passive to active voice.
- It might be doing too much ‘telling’ rather than showing.
- It may be laden with adjectives.
One thing is certain
When the ‘is it any good question?’ is asked, it is usually too soon to know what the work will be.
The cake needs to stay in the oven until ready.
I believe in encouraging and believing in the ability to complete.
Recently, I came across this quote about feedback. Via Daniel Pink, it was from Daniel Coyle who had uncovered a great quote from a study “Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide,” that was published in the April 2014 edition of the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
I am giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.
I’ve not been using these exact words but I believe they capture the spirit of feedback.
Or I could say:
Not there yet.
I am giving you these comments [this post] today because I have very high expectations and I know you (and I) can reach them.