Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Receiving feedback on writing, part the second

Receiving feedback on writing is a tricky skill, and one that is crucial for our profession. But by and large, it isn't taught formally. Maybe it can't be; I've learned through years of receiving feedback of better or worse quality on my writing, and also through my experiences giving feedback to composition students and to peers.

Today I'll offer four general ideas about how to receive feedback. The main idea that runs through all four of them is as follows: the point of receiving feedback is to produce a better piece of writing. This is, it would seem, obvious, but it's so easy to get caught up in some freakish sense of duty that makes the feedback seem more important than the actual writing.

  • It's your writing. You do not have to take suggestions that stem from a misapprehension of what you're trying to do with the piece. (You should, of course, clarify your writing so that readers will no longer labor under the aforementioned misapprehension.) Suggestions are just that, and ultimately you're responsible for your work. Nobody understands what you're trying to accomplish the way you do. Take suggestions seriously, but in the end it's your call. That said...

  • Be practical. Ideally your readers all respect your vision and are offering sincere, thoughtful suggestions. But sadly, that isn't universally the case, and the academy, like everything else, is full of power dynamics on which you'll often be on the weaker end. Sometimes you just need to recognize an unreasonable demand for what it is, bend, and save your magnum opus for another day--a day after you've received tenure. If an anonymous peer reviewer demands X, unless it morally offends you, then for Pete's sake just do it. If your advisor thinks you need to talk about Erving Goffman in your chapter on Havelok and the hagiographic tradition and won't approve your dissertation until you do, screw integrity and find a way to work poor Goffman in. (You should have enough of a relationship with your advisor to judge whether she or he is likely to insist on such things; if you're early in the dissertation-writing stage then now's the time to test those boundaries. Also, if you're at that stage and you find that your advisor isn't respectful of your project's direction, then now's also the time to think about finding another one, or at least adding some other people to the committee.) Another way of saying this is: pick your battles.

  • Distinguish between what the feedback means and what you're going to do with it. Often feedback takes the form of observations: "in this section you give a review of literature"; "in this section you revise X's model of Y to account for Z." Sometimes those observations will strike you as wrong. What it means is that the reader hasn't understood what you were up to. But it won't help you or anybody to rant about the reader's failure to understand your writing. Instead, what you'll do with it is revise that section until it's clearer what you are doing. In general, it's tempting to think of feedback in terms of what it means the reader is thinking (about your writing! about you!). That's fine, but move beyond that reaction to turn what the reader is thinking into a concrete course of action.

  • Bracket or outright ignore any feedback that impedes your ability to work on the piece. I really mean this. Truly unserious feedback, or feedback that sends you into a paralyzing spiral of self-doubt, should be summarily chucked, or at least placed in a drawer until the wounds heal. The point of receiving feedback is to produce a better piece of writing. If a response to your writing paralyzes you or prevents you from working, then it defeats the purpose of receiving feedback in the first place. It may be that you're oversensitive, true--most people are when it comes to their writing. And certainly, you can and should try to develop some distance on your writing. But if, in this moment, the response you're looking at is making you fear to open the Word file at all, and maybe eye the Golden Gate Bridge a little too fondly, a ritual burning is not out of place. You're a writer. Do whatever it takes to improve your writing, and if that means coddling yourself emotionally just a little, then so be it. Here are some kinds of feedback I think it's okay to ignore:

    • Proofreading, on a draft meant for substantive revision. If you've asked for comments on a draft, a response that fixates entirely on typos and the odd awkward phrase is not a serious engagement. You will proofread your writing after you've revised it. This, you can set on fire. (Follow local safety laws!) Next time, give this reader explicit instructions for how to respond to your writing.

    • The avalanche. If there are just too many suggestions for a mortal human being to deal with, to the point that you're unable to even start in on revisions, just put the comments aside. I don't recommend setting these sorts of suggestions on fire, because they're probably substantive, if poorly organized. Just read through them once and put them away. You'll take the matter into your own hands and figure out how to revise, maybe returning to these comments when you have a better sense of where you're going to go. And next time, ask this reader to focus on one or two particular aspects of the piece.

    • Invective. Insults of any kind, whether directed at you or at your writing, are unprofessional and non-substantive. They won't help you revise. If possible, don't solicit comments from this reader again.

In a future post (oh, promises, promises!) I'll discuss some common specific elements of receiving feedback and how to deal with them: hobbyhorses; feeling misunderstood; turf-warring. I say this as if I'm some kind of expert, but really I'm just bumbling along here, so please do add suggestions in comments, fair readers.

(Special thanks to Hillary, Benjamin, and Lila for the cat photo.)

Previous posts on responses to writing:

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