How to Ask for Feedback

Have you ever written something, shared it with someone, and wondered how to incorporate the feedback they offered you?

One skill writers sometimes develop when they collaborate with editors or with writing group members is the ability to ask for a certain type of feedback. Not all writers know how to provide – or ask for – constructive feedback, and even fewer writers receive coaching in these skills.  The result? Some writers simply keep their work to themselves until they feel their pieces are complete – and miss out on the opportunity to see how their work reaches an audience.

Pat Belanoff and Peter Elbow crafted several exercises to help writers ask for feedback  Their  ‘Sharing and Responding‘ exercises are designed to help writers in a workshop setting develop trust with one another and learn to provide constructive feedback for revision and publication. The exercises, however, are just as useful in all of these situations as well:

  • professional writers seeking responses from editorial staff
  • student writers seeking feedback from tutors
  • any writer seeking feedback from family or friends who are inexperienced at providing constructive feedback
  • writers who want to practice giving feedback to themselves

Below are five of the exercises from the McGraw Hill Online Learning Center: Being a Writer.  Practice one or more of them with a friend or in a writing group.  Then follow the hyperlink to the full online workshop on these Sharing and Responding exercises.

1. Sharing: No Response

Read your piece aloud to listeners and ask: “Would you please just listen and enjoy?” You can also give them your text to read silently, though you don’t usually learn as much this way. Simple sharing is also a way to listen better to your own responses to your own piece, without having to think about how others respond. You learn an enormous amount from hearing yourself read your own words or from reading them over when you know that someone else is also reading them.

No response is valuable in many situations–when you don’t have much time, at very early stages when you want to try something out or feel very tentative, or when you are completely finished and don’t plan to make any changes at all–as a form of simple communication or celebration. Sharing gives you an unpressured setting for getting comfortable reading your words out loud and listening to the writing of others.

2. Pointing and Center of Gravity

Pointing: “Which words or phrases or passages somehow strike you? stick in mind? get through?” Center of gravity: “Which sections somehow seem important or resonant or generative?” You are not asking necessarily for the main points but for sections or passages that seem to resonate or linger in mind. Sometimes a seemingly minor detail or example–even an aside or a digression–can be a center of gravity.

These quick, easy, interesting forms of response are good for timid or inexperienced responders, or for early drafts. They help you establish a sense of contact with readers. Center of gravity response is particularly interesting for showing you rich and interesting parts of your piece that you might have neglected, but which might be worth exploring and developing. Center of gravity can help you see your piece in a different light and suggest ways to make major revisions.

3. Summary and Sayback

Summary: “Please summarize what you have heard. Tell me what you hear as the main thing and the almost-main things.” (Variations: “Give me a phrase as title and a one-word title–first using my words and then using your words.”) Sayback: “Please say back to me in your own words what you hear me getting at in my piece, but say it in a somewhat questioning or tentative way–as an invitation for me to reply with my own restatement of what you’ve said.”

These are both useful at any stage in the writing process to see whether readers “got” the points you are trying to “give.” But sayback is particularly useful at early stages when you are still groping and haven’t yet been able to find what you really want to say. You can read a collection of exploratory passages for sayback response. When readers say back to you what they hear–and invite you to reply–it often leads you to find exactly the words or thoughts or emphasis you were looking for.

4. What Is Almost Said? What Do You Want to Hear More About?

Just ask readers those very questions.

This kind of response is particularly useful when you need to develop or enrich your piece–when you sense there is more here but you haven’t been able to get your finger on it yet. This kind of question gives you concrete substantive help because it leads your readers to give you some of their ideas to add to yours. Remember this too: What you imply but don’t say in your writing is often very loud to readers but unheard by you and has an enormous effect on how they respond.

Extreme variation: “Make a guess about what was on my mind that I didn’t write about.”

5. Reply

Simply ask, “What are your thoughts about my topic? Now that you’ve heard what I’ve had to say, what do you have to say?”

This kind of response is useful at any point, but it is particularly useful at early stages when you haven’t worked out your thinking. Indeed, you can ask for this kind of response even before you’ve written a draft; perhaps you jotted down some notes. You can say, “I’m thinking about saying X, Y, and Z. How would you reply? What are your thoughts about this topic?” This is actually the most natural and common response to any human discourse. You are inviting a small discussion of the topic.

When you are ready to sign up with Tutoring the Whole Writer, consider requesting a certain type of feedback for your writing to get the most out of your session.