…from almost everything. It is Sunday morning on the first day of this break, and, as often happens at such times, I feel pretty much exactly like this:
(Source: Nivaagaard Collection.)
Writing, Representation, and the Crisis of Scholarship
Before seeking someone else's opinion of your writing, make sure that your mind is prepared to learn. That is, do not go into the feedback loop with the attitude of Branford Marsalis' students, who only want to know how good they are, how right they are, and how talented they are. You are seeking feedback in order to discover new ways to improve.
All texts can be improved. When I do masterclass workshops on how to edit a text we work on one paragraph at a time. One exercise is to put the paragraph on the screen, read it out loud, and then ask simply "What's the best sentence? What's the worst sentence?" There is no question here of finding good and bad sentences. If the paragraph consists of nine sentences, there simply will be a best and a worst one, even if all of them are good, or all of them are bad. The exercise is just asking us to be discerning in an ordinary, practical way.
Always remember that your reader is in no position to judge your knowledge or your intelligence. And it is only if you have given everything (which is impossible) to the text that you can take their feedback as a final judgment on your abilities as a writer. In the old days I would ask people to submit work to my workshops that they had spent some time bringing up to their highest linguistic standard, a paragraph written "at the top of their game", but I've realized that this only makes things difficult. These days I tell them to bring a paragraph that they've spent exactly 27-minutes writing, so that we all know what we're dealing with, and imperfections are completely understandable.
When listening to feedback, remind yourself that you are a finite human being who has spent a finite amount of time accomplishing a finite result. Don't, however, keep reminding the person who is giving you feedback of that. If you keep saying that the imperfections in your text are understandable because, well, you're only human, then you'll give your reader the sense that they are wasting their time. Did you want to hear their opinion or not? Just listen with an open mind, eager to hear how the text can be improved.
And that's the most important thing. Always listen to your reader as someone who is suggesting, however implicitly, what you should do during the next five, ten, twenty hours of work on this text. The reader is not evaluating the text itself, but the work you have done to produce it. They are telling you how successful you have been in accomplishing your goals. So as you interpret their feedback, whether that be from a colleague, a reviewer, an editor, or even the reader of a text you have published, always do so in terms of the writing or editing tasks that the feedback implies.
A text is always the result of a series of rhetorical decisions, decisions about what to say and how to say it. If your reader says your sentences are too long, they are suggesting you spend some time shortening them. If your reader says your argument is too "compact", you should imagine making the same argument with more paragraphs. If your reader says you are contradicting yourself, they are suggesting that you say one thing or the other, not both, and probably that you have to delete a few paragraphs. In the end, you decide what you will actually do with the time you still want to spend on this text. You reader is trying to help you make those decisions. Your reader is not making them for you.
I've given a great deal of feedback on people's writing over the years, and I've come to a few conclusions about how it's best done. One of the most important things here is the basic attitude or posture of feedback. Just as a writer should always "think of the reader", the editor, when giving feedback, should always think of the writer. That is, you should always ask yourself what the writer wants in asking for (or subjecting themselves to) your opinion of their work. How will what you say help them?
You therefore also have to know your writer. Your feedback should in any case be sensitive to your state of knowledge about the reader's goals. If you don't know anything about the author of the text—what stage of their education they are at, what their aims and ambitions in writing are, why they have sought specifically your opinion about this text—then you are going to have to keep focused on the text itself and be very careful not, even implicitly, to provide feedback on the process or intelligence that produced it. Ideally, however, you will know both why the writer wants your feedback and how the writer produced the text you are reading.
While you'll always in a sense have to comment on the text itself, keep in mind that your feedback is going to serve as a guide for further work. Make sure that the weaknesses you identify in a text can be fixed by some imaginable editing or writing process, and that it will not require a miraculous increase in the intelligence or knowledgeability of the author. The fact that you could write a much better text on the same subject is not a fact about the text that the writer needs to know. The point is that the writer could produce a better text, based on your feedback.
More practically, try, when reading, to form a clear opinion about what the author is trying to say, and how the author knows. (This is an approach to reading that I ran into in the work of Wayne Booth many years ago.) For each paragraph, mark what you think is the key sentence, and ask yourself whether, and how well, the rest of the paragraph supports it. That way your feedback can be centered on the claims that are actually being made in the text, and the effectiveness with which they are being made. You can say either (a) this paragraph is saying something that should not be said, or (b) this paragraph is not saying this as well as it could be said. (You can also, of course, say that there seems to be a paragraph that says such-and-such missing here.) That is, your feedback will be structured by the unit of composition, the paragraph.
The magic of this approach to giving feedback is that you can now imagine your writer dealing with your comments one paragraph at a time. And this means you can imagine resolving the issues you raises by 27 minutes of deliberate effort, i.e., the time it takes to write a paragraph. If you're giving feedback that cannot be translated into a series of 27-minute writing tasks, you are probably not being as helpful as I know you're trying to be.
Giving feedback is an art in its own right, and so is taking it. But recently I was asked about this issue with a bit of a twist. Not, how do you give feedback, or how do you take feedback? But how do you get someone else to give you useful feedback?
Here are a few suggestions:
First, and most important, never come to someone with a text you've written and ask them to make whatever suggestions they can think of whenever they have time. Always contact your reader in advance, tell them when you will have the text to them, and when you would like to get their feedback. Ideally, you'll tell them you'll give them a text on a given morning and would like to hear from them that afternoon. If someone can't make time to read and comment on your work in their calendar, a few weeks ahead of time, then you don't want their feedback.
Second, ask them to comment on a specific section or aspect of your text. Do you want to know about the language, the structure of the argument, the quality of the data? Do you want feedback on the introduction, conclusion, methods section, etc.? Give your reader a focused task to spend a few scheduled hours carrying out. Don't just drop the overarching question of whether or not you're a good writer or knowledgeable person on their desk.
Third, be very clear with yourself and your reader about why you are getting feedback on this text. It may of course be because your supervisor (or research director) has demanded to see what you're working on. (This makes the problem of scheduling simple, since you'll then have been given a deadline.) But in most cases there's talk of a situation where you are asking for help to see how to improve your text. A really good approach here is to make sure that you and your reader know how much work you've put into this text so far, and how much work you intend to do on it in the near future. Your reader is really helping you to evaluate how well that work went, and decide what work there is to come.
Finally, be clear about what you are trying to say. Before asking someone else to read ten or twenty paragraphs of your prose, make a list of the ten or twenty key sentences that state the point of each paragraph. Do those sentences make sense to you? Are they what you are trying to say to the ultimate reader? There is no point in asking someone whether you are saying something well if you can't even yourself see what you're trying to say. In some cases, it can be very helpful to provide your reader with that list of key sentences. In other cases, it can be useful to ask your reader to make such a list based on their reading. Then you can see if you choose the same sentences, i.e., if you understand the text to be saying the same thing.
I'll devote this whole week's posts to giving and taking feedback. On Wednesday, I'll say something directly about how to give feedback. And on Friday, something about how to take it.
"Something out of childhood whistles through this space, a sense of games and half-made selves, but it’s not that you’re pretending to be someone else. You’re pretending to be exactly who you are. That’s the curious thing."