Friday, April 11, 2014

Taking Feedback

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.

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