What to Consider When Seeking Feedback on Your Writing

Boston-based Chuck Leddy has been crafting engaging content since 1995, as a journalist and B2B brand storyteller. He's written for B2B brands such as General Electric, ADP, Office Depot, Cintas, the National Center for the Middle Market, and many more. He's also been published in print publications such as the Boston Globe, Forbes, the Washington Post, and San Francisco Chronicle. His website and blog are at www.ChuckLeddy.com.

I was asked recently to be a guest lecturer for a college writing class. The instructor asked me to share some insights about writing (I’m a brand storyteller) with her students, who were filled with energy and lots of thoughtful questions about writing. One student asked me if there was a "right" way to use feedback. The question got me thinking about that, and other, questions related to feedback. Let me answer five basic feedback-related questions here:

1. Is it always a good idea to seek feedback on your writing? The answer depends. You may be working against a tight deadline and hence have limited time to seek feedback. In these cases, I don't recommend you seek it. At other times, you may feel confident about what you're doing (perhaps due to experience) and won't necessarily feel the need to invite feedback. I generally seek feedback when there's time for it and when I feel feedback will improve my writing (in other words, when I have some doubts about what I’m doing). Usually these doubts revolve around beginnings and endings, and the overall narrative flow and tone/voice of the writing.

2. Who should you approach for feedback? It's a good idea to have two or three people you trust who are willing to provide feedback. I have a close friend who is an experienced, savvy business consultant. When I'm writing about business topics and I have time and doubts, I'll email him my draft and ask him to provide feedback. I also ask my wife for feedback. She's a skilled editor (and English teacher) and has always been able to spot weaknesses in my writing, which has been tremendously helpful. Find smart people you trust to offer feedback, and reward them for providing it (with at least a “thank you” note).

3. What feedback is “valuable”/useful? Well, it depends on what you need. I like to have feedback that spots problems in the writing, but I generally don't want the person to offer specific solutions. In my opinion, it's the writer's job to find solutions once the problems have been identified. With my wife, for example, I always ask her beforehand to point out problems but not tell me how to solve them.

On a related note, useful feedback is always about the specifics of the writing itself and never about the writer. To be useful, feedback should be as specific as possible. "Your ending doesn't feel right," for instance, isn't very useful. It recognizes a problem, but the writer wants to understand the problem in more detail. Better feedback might be: "The ending doesn't seem to tie together with the rest of what you've written, so it seems tacked on at the end because you ran out of space or couldn’t think of something more organic." With this latter feedback, I can analyze and solve the problem. All good writers must be strong problem-solvers once specific problems present themselves through feedback.

4. What if the feedback is more about the person giving feedback than the writer or the writing? Then it’s bad feedback the writer can feel free to disregard. Sometimes, the giver of feedback would handle the writing differently, perhaps using a different tone of voice or structure. That's fine, but the writer is the owner of the work and the writing should reflect the writer's perspective. Take in all feedback, yes, but the writer retains the ultimate right to disregard it. If, for example, you write a personal essay about a painful childhood experience, nobody has the right to tell you not to share that story or to make it more upbeat. These choices are the writer’s alone.

5. Do the same feedback rules apply to editors? Yes, but editors should be able to both identify problems and also help you resolve them with precise, actionable suggestions. Editors are supposed to understand the "editorial voice" of the publication or client, so if a writer is off target with the voice/tone, a good editor will help you get back on target. Like a good writer, a good editor is also a problem-solver. Editors who merely point out problems (“The tone doesn't feel quite right. Can you change it?") are not effective editors, and writers won't much enjoy writing for them. When you find an editor adept at providing good feedback, keep working with that editor.

The best practice would be to start asking for more feedback and learning how to use it as you go. That will take time and patience, but will also improve the way you work and the writing output itself. For this reason, and in the right context, good feedback is a gift you should seek out and use wisely.