Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Giving Feedback

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.

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