Back to Feedback

Giving and receiving feedback can be tricky. Tact is paramount, and even the most salient point will fall on deaf ears if not delivered with respect and kindness. (See here and here.) However, the recipient must be genuinely open to feedback, otherwise the whole exercise is moot. 

I know a few short-fiction writers who ask for critique, but no matter how on point or how tactfully delivered the feedback may be, these authors end up incorporating none of it (and, in a few cases, end up aggrieved that there was any feedback to begin with). Of course, no one is expected to agree with every comment or adopt every suggestion, but feedback from seasoned writers usually illuminates legitimate issues that deserve some reflection. 

Recently, a similar thing happened with a junior faculty member in the context of technical writing. This was not the first such instance, either. This junior faculty member will ask for feedback on their writing, and not just from me, and then basically ignore all of it. In the most recent review cycle, I sent  only broad-strokes feedback but no sentence-level feedback because I’ve had the experience of it being ignored and I don’t have time to waste, but another colleague did provide detailed inline comments, and did a pretty good job of it, too. The junior faculty member ended up not incorporating a single suggestion, even the comments that were no brainers, such as suggestions regarding cumbersome sentences that desperately needed restructuring. Let’s not even talk about hyphenation or punctuation, something that most people are generally worse at than they think they are, but too few strive to improve (The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation is my sacred text).

I mean, why even ask for feedback if you don’t want to reflect upon what you’ve written? Not all feedback is equally valid, but assuming you’re asking people whom you trust, who get what you are trying to do, and who have experience in your genre (be it fiction or technical prose), why wouldn’t you consider their feedback seriously? 

Conversely, if you feel your work is beyond reproach, why do you waste people’s time? Do you expect they will come back and say, “This is perfection. No notes”? Is it some weird pull between thinking you ought to get feedback and also believing you are above feedback? I can sympathize with this sentiment, truly, but I usually have the presence of mind (or perhaps humility) to recognize when someone has pointed out a real issue. The goal should be to make the manuscript the best it can be. Having a healthy dose of ego is good, as it helps you stand your ground in the face of low-quality, bad-faith, or misguided feedback. But the ego shouldn’t be so large that it obscures avenues for real improvement simply because someone else has pointed them out. 

What say you, blogosphere? How’s your experience with giving/receiving feedback been? 

8 comments

  1. ooh, getting the blue book of grammar and punctuation for the kids…

    I think I’m pretty good about receiving feedback so long as it is given constructively. (I have a junior colleague who is kind of a jerk about it and has very her way or the highway thinking, and so she’ll often bring up a good point, but in such a way that I feel like she thinks I’m stupid. As opposed to my more helpful colleagues who are focused on the work constructively.) My writing isn’t precious, so in coauthor situations I’m happy to take their rewriting even if I think it’s just different and not actually any better. (Often it is better, sometimes it’s worse…when it’s worse I usually explain why I’m rejecting or am rewriting something different than either of us had before and they’ll often come back with something that fixes both our concerns.)

    I’m big on letting other people have their voice and not trying to fit it to my voice, which a lot of editors have problems with. So I focus on organization and clarity and cutting unnecessary verbiage.

    That said, I really do appreciate when people fix my grammar or point out when things are unclear or are disorganized. I LOVE it when people are able to go a step farther and actually make the writing stronger, but those people are in the minority compared to people who just want to make it sound like they’d written it (which is usually just as good and different, but not generally better).

    It is a bit crazy how I’m sloppy with blogging/comments generally (see excessive parentheticals), but when talking about writing I feel like I need to be more formal. I am trying very hard not to go back and make those first couple of paragraphs in this comment more formal.

  2. I like to think I’m good at receiving feedback. I care deeply about how I write, but that for me translates into wanting to get it right, so if people point out slips, then great. I think writing is one of the few things I’m halfway confident about – not necessarily the content, but the prose, so I feel that I can judge whether criticism is constructive or not, and that makes it easier to take on board.

    As a former journal editor, I distinguished between authors who were grateful for feedback and implemented it as carefully as they could or took the time to explain why they hadn’t. Usually, they got published faster because they didn’t resist every step of the way. But too often, people are lazy or in a hurry, so just fix the small things and ignore the need to restructure the argument or improve the prose. We editors held the line and pushed back, but it was amazing how grumpy some people would get about this.

    I think many people are not aware of what good writing is, and so are surprised by the amount of feedback. With students especially, I feel most have not been trained to care. In the first place, UK schools (I’m in the UK) teach writing badly: first-year students come in with terrible habits that take ages to undo. Somehow, despite years of schooling, many have never mastered basics like the apostrophe. In the second place, they develop an attitude, reinforced by everyone around them writing badly, that it doesn’t really matter. It’s just details. They know what they mean, so does it matter if the sentence is awkward, or not really a sentence? I have a PhD student who is terrible at taking my feedback on board. It’s partly a gender and cultural issue: he isn’t from the UK, but I think he thinks I am being fussy, and failing to engage with his brilliant ideas because I’m too busy pointing out his clumsy use of ‘this’. Whereas I am trying to point out that I can’t engage with his brilliant ideas if he doesn’t express them clearly and elegantly. (Now wondering if this last sentence can stand alone. Can it? Should I have a comma before ‘whereas’? Too many bad essays – I am losing my grip!)

  3. I’m not the best at taking feedback – but I do want it, so I work hard to not let it injure my little self-esteem. I do better when the feedback is in writing so that I can have my initial emotional reactions privately and then come back to it when I am ready. I have a collaborator who wants to always give feedback on paper drafts over zoom rather than in writing, which drives me bonkers.

    When I am a co-author or a reviewer, I give a ton of feedback and have been told that it is overwhelming to the first author (a mentor told me this about a co-author who is a man who has a particularly delicate ego – but I think she was also meaning this to apply to her – she doesn’t like my feedback and often doesn’t take it). My reviews are often way too long – but I have this really strong desire to improve the research in my little field (research on a super marginalized population – to which I also belong) and see my reviews as an opportunity to do so (one paper at a time!). It stuns me when I write a long review with a ton of high-level feedback and the other reviewer just basically says, “great paper – no feedback!”

    I would much rather have co-authors who really engage and give a lot of feedback than those who just say the paper is great and make a couple tiny edits. There is an exception to this – I have a paper on which I am first author and a co-author (who is very senior, and I am very junior) basically just started re-writing the whole thing in their voice. I think that is just bad mentorship. No one learns from someone just re-writing their work.

    I always like reviewers who just tell me my paper is great – but I have some papers that have been made so much better through the review process bc reviewers really engaged and did so in ways that were helpful and respectful.

  4. Your junior colleague may be asking for feedback because they were told it was a good way to start a mentoring relationship or make you their ally, and not because they want the feedback. I was given this advice (and ignored it). If this is the case, well, they obviously haven’t thought it through. Lol.

  5. I’ve never been good about taking feedback from fellow faculty—most of my colleagues write terribly. I do value feedback enough that I offer 25¢ for the first report of any errors in my textbook (just the version I sell through LeanPub, not the version that copy editors mangled—I’m sure I did not catch all the errors they introduced). I’ve been offering that 25¢/error through most of the early drafts of the book, and some years the students in my class really got into it (I paid out over $100 one year). Some of the errors were tiny (like a regular-width space instead of a thin space before units), but I was happy to take them all. It was certainly cheaper than paying for a professional copy editor (and the professional copy editors my publisher hired did more damage than repair, by a factor of at least four).

  6. OMG I am dying with these premadonna authors.

    I’m at editor at a (n interdisciplinary) journal with short word limits. These authors are 40% over at the editing stage. I look and the paper is just stuffed with bad and unnecessary writing. Run on sentences that last 7-10 lines, repeated multiple connectors that don’t really add anything or have nuance they didn’t intend, excessive adverbs and unnecessary redundant adjectives etc. They use a $5 word with incorrect nuance when they could just use a smaller more general word—like an undergrad with a thesaurus.

    So I spent a day cutting and then gave up and told them to cut and they’re getting all premadonna and have gone to the managing editor about how terrible my edits are and they refuse to do any more and they regularly get published in top journals that don’t force them to write better.

    One sentence had TWO colons in it.

  7. I’m usually happy to get feedback and try to be as tactful as possible in giving it, but since I don’t have “trusted readers,” that’s usually after I’ve sent it out.

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