Useful feedback: 3 rules

Bad feedback is a sure road to frustration. Discard it, and you’re on for a scrap with the person you’re ignoring. Listen to it, and you’re going off into meandrous territory. No one knows when or in what state you’ll emerge.

Useful feedback, on the other hand, is just as good to the person receiving it as to the person giving it.

Forget praise sandwiches and arbitrary positive-to-negative feedback ratios. Good feedback can be brutal as long as it follows a few simple principles:

  1. It needs to be constructive. The goal of anything you say must be to help the other person improve their work. This sounds simple, even obvious, but actively hold yourself to it, and the quality of your feedback will improve. For example, imagine that you can’t connect with a piece of writing. Rather than dismiss it by saying that it didn’t work for you, try to identify an aspect on which the writer can improve. I had difficulty connecting to this piece, because the scene felt too airy.
  2. It needs to be concrete. Don’t think that abstract feedback isn’t helpful. The scene feels airy, the writing is lax, can be far more useful than a litany of line edits, as long as it is brought back to concretes. For example, the scene felt too airy for me, and I think it’s because there were no description of objects and emotions.
  3. It needs to offer solutions. It’s too easy to stop at a simple criticism. But it’s in offering solutions that you’re really offering value. By engaging on a deeper level, you’re learning to fix the problem, not just to identify it, and you’re giving the writer a palpable sense of what you want them to look at. They may well choose another solution to the one you offer, if only to keep ownership of their project, but in any case, thanks to your feedback, they’ll have a handle on something they need to consider. Back to our example: the scene felt too airy for me, and I think it’s because there were no description of objects and emotions, and you could change this by perhaps telling us what he sat on (was it a red couch, or a high-perched stool?) and by telling us how she felt when he ran out of the room (relief, or disappointment?).

Going through that process will not only make you friends, but it’ll turn you into a better writer. Learning to articulate why something works, or why something doesn’t work, and how it could work better is a consuming process. Even feedback as simple as the one in our example can take weeks to pinpoint.

But do it right, and you’ll reap the rewards.

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