Monday, April 07, 2014


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.

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