Not all feedback helps to improve writing. Have you ever-experienced killer feedback? It’s the kind of feedback that makes you feel ashamed, humiliated and as if you wanted to put away the writing for ever. Everyone I know has received it at some stage. I remember the reviewer’s comment on an article I’d submitted to an academic journal. This was the sentence that did it: If the author aspires to an academic position they should learn how to reference. It was doubly killing as a) I was already a university lecturer and b) there was nothing wrong with the referencing. Nevertheless I abandoned the article on the spot.
Yet feedback can be very helpful. The three authors of The New Age of Ageing sought out readers to provide different types of feedback, and to learn from and improve our writing by taking their comments into account. Here are our reflections on our learning from this process.
Marianne Coleman says
We have asked for and received feedback throughout the writing of the book: right at the start on the proposal; on individual chapters and on the full draft.
It was really important to get feedback on the proposal. The publisher asked us to suggest suitable people to read our initial proposal so that they got a view on the viability of the book. That feedback was positive and constructive, and we took it into account when finalising the proposal, which was the initial skeleton of the book.
Throughout the course of the writing we were getting feedback from each other. For me the best thing about having co-authors has been the process of shaping the individual chapters and the book through the wonderful discussions we had each time we met. We also gave feedback to each other on draft chapters and that was incredibly useful. Obviously this can only work when you trust each other and can be honest, open and respectful of each other’s work and feelings.
In a wide-ranging book like ours, we covered areas where we were not necessarily fully expert and it was vital that we checked our facts with people who were. Their invaluable feedback enabled us to have confidence in what we were saying, but we found that we had to use our judgment about how much of their advice and how many of their suggestions to incorporate. Sometimes the sophistication and detail of their arguments were too much for the general nature of the book and more suitable for a thorough exploration of their particular area of expertise. This meant that sometimes after incorporating expert suggestions, they were trimmed back for the final draft.
A particularly useful feedback came from one of our readers at the point where we had a nearly complete draft. She came back with some vital over-arching comments including that we had not really established the standpoint from which we were speaking. This feedback made us think hard and helped us sharpen our thoughts and message for the final version.
The most recent feedback came in the form of editor’s queries. Although these tended to be mainly about consistency of spelling, punctuation and missing references, sometimes the editor has picked up a badly expressed thought that can be refined and improved for meaning.
But that is not the final feedback. That will come from our readers!
Eileen Carnell writes
What we know for sure is that feedback can help authors become much better writers. But asking for, writing and getting feedback can be a tricky business. The process can be emotional and needs to be done with care. Here are 7 important points about feedback.
- You have to trust the readers of your work.
You need to have a good relationship and be prepared for the experience to be reciprocal. You are asking people to be generous with their time and be encouraging while providing authentic critique. Providing effective feedback is a highly skilled process. It’s about providing information, not about giving advice.
- All information about your writing can be useful.
Information can vary from seemingly small technical suggestions to comments about the overarching themes, consistency of arguments, important missing elements and the value of the project.
- Information provided is for the writer to work with.
As one reader said: ‘… just things which would have made my own reading of it easier – for you to take or leave as you feel fit,’ indicating that he knew that the writers are decision makers, not passive recipients of the comments.
- It can be helpful to ask readers for specific information.
We were particularly keen to know whether the voices of the three different authors were knitted together across the book and were keen to know if male readers would feel included.
- Getting feedback can be an emotional process.
Constructive criticism from others may feel like a criticism of the person rather than a critique of the writing as Caroline suggests when talking about ‘killer’ feedback. This may be even more the case when writing fiction.
- It can be helpful to get feedback from people who don’t know much about the themes or who are not experienced writers themselves.
Non-experts may ask questions that indicate that further explanation is needed, whether the writing is clear and if the argument is consistent.
- There are different ways of relaying information about others’ writing.
Everyday use of the term feedback (the dominant view) suggests the reader presents information to the writer – a one-way process. We describe this feedback as Gifts (see note). In other situations the nature of feedback has a social dimension, rather like Ping-Pong, where ideas are tossed back and forth and involve making connections. There are shared insights and new meanings established. Feedback here is a two-way process. The third example, our favoured kind, is what we define as Loops. Here there is an equal power dynamic in which new knowledge and concepts are created through dialogue.
On a writing course once, I was reminded that you cannot stand alongside everything you write and explain to the reader what they have not understood. In fact it is rare to receive comments directly about your writing. So when you get the chance, listen to the comments, take them into account and learn from them. You don’t have to agree or act on all of it. I try to remember this.
We would like to thanks the readers of the whole book who took on a huge, time-consuming task. We are very grateful for their generosity and expertise. We are also indebted to the many readers of individual chapters who made really helpful observations. Even though there were three of us writing this book getting feedback breaks the isolation of writing and it is really good to get a range of different perspectives.
Note: Askew, S & Lodge, C (2000). Gifts, Ping-Pong and Loops – linking feedback and learning, in Askew, S. (Ed) Feedback for Learning. London: Routledge.
The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman. To be published by Policy Press on 7th September.
We are writing monthly posts about the stages from bright ideas to publishing a book. Earlier posts have included
First Catch Your Publisher (April 2016)
One Book, Three Authors (March 2016)
Writers’ Residential (February 2016)
A post focussing on relationships in the feedback process is Critique Etiquette: the Ultimate Guide for Giving and Receiving Feedback by Angela Ackerman on Writers in the Storm blog in March 2015
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