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“I don’t get it,” my close friend emailed me after reading one of my Elephant Journal articles.
It didn’t matter to him that the piece was an “Editor’s Pick.” He felt that the premise of the article didn’t hold up. I was making a point, he was suggesting, when there was no real point to be made.
Another friend told me that another essay of mine fell short in his eyes because I hadn’t fully shown up in the piece. He was disappointed that he couldn’t “feel me” in the writing.
I “overexplained” certain points, a third friend suggested, after reading a draft of a different essay. In several places, she pointed out, I had used many words when fewer would have done.
In each case of negative feedback, my initial response was to close up. I couldn’t fully hear what my friends were saying. I was too busy defensively disengaging.
I’m writing this piece because I can tell that it’s time for me to bring a higher self to feedback. And writing might be a way to work into that self.
Here are several self-lessons that have come to me:
Don’t Ask for Feedback I Don’t Want
I always ask my friends for feedback about my writing.
While I might say I want others’ honest feedback, what I really want is their validation. My adult-centered self knows that not everything I write is good and sufficiently thought-out. But my undeveloped self is stuck in a search for yet another pat on the back. I can seem addicted to reassurance.
A simple truth for me is to be mindful of my feedback needs in any situation. If I really want only praise and encouragement, I shouldn’t ask people for genuine, open-ended feedback. I need to first get to a point in my own self-evaluation to feel that my work has worth. If I don’t feel that, there’s no point in asking for others to comment.
If I Do Want Feedback, What Kind Makes Most Sense?
When people ask what kind of feedback I want, I’ve tended to say things like, “whatever feels right to you.”
The problem with being so vague is that it places the burden entirely on another to figure out what would be helpful to me. But if I don’t know what would be helpful, how are they to know?
It seems to me that depending on the circumstances, I might want three different types of feedback.
One type is growth-promoting. This is the feedback that helps me deepen or expand my thinking, shift my perspective, or make changes and improvements.
I’ve been hesitant to give my friends growth or improvement criteria to work out of fear that this would appear overly formal—as if I were treating them as professional reviewers.
But I now feel that if I sincerely want their feedback about growth possibilities, I should suggest basic criteria as guideposts, perhaps criteria along the following lines:
Clarity: Any thoughts about how the writing might be clearer or easier to follow?
Complexity: Might the piece explore complexity and nuance more sensitively?
Authenticity: Do I seem fully present and authentic?
Relatability: How might I relate more closely to the intended audience?
A friend might not want to give me feedback of this sort. Perhaps it would seem that I was asking for objectivity when our friendship was not about being objective but about sharing our subjectivity. But I’d rather a friend politely decline than be uncertain about the nature of the feedback I was looking for.
Another type of feedback that I might want is about making the grade.
In this case, I’d be looking to see whether a paper I wrote was deemed worthy enough to be accepted for publication or as an Editor’s Pick. I’d be less interested in growth or improvement tips in this kind of situation and more interested in a yes or no kind of appraisal—did the paper meet whatever standard had been established to earn a desired benefit or receive some sort of merit badge?
I’m less likely to ask a friend for making-the-grade feedback because they aren’t in an official position to issue a grade. At the same time, I could imagine being upfront with a friend and saying something like, “Tell me the truth: do you think this piece is worthy of sharing with a broad audience or is it not there yet?”
A further type of feedback I should be willing to ask for is about the impact a piece might be having on the reader.
By “impact,” I mean whether my friend feels they are learning anything meaningful from the writing or sensing any sort of opening, shifting, or heightened awareness. Perhaps there is something they simply enjoyed or found striking or emotionally resonant. Impact may be more about the reader than me, but if a piece does not move a reader in any discernible way, it does say something about limitations in the writing.
Being clear about these three different purposes for feedback doesn’t mean I no longer care about feedback in the form of praise and encouragement. It’s just that I now believe that “well done” and “attaboy,” if deserved, are bonuses rather than a primary feedback purpose.
Claim my Writing Self without Overidentifying With it
Writing is important to me. But if I hold too tightly to writing as a fixture of my identity, then feedback about an article becomes feedback about my identity. My worthiness as a person, my very dignity and self-respect, is on the line every time feedback is offered.
When I can hold my writing self gently as a valued part of me but not the whole, feedback is just that: information that can help me grow, know where I stand, and offer something of value to readers.