by Ian Vanagas
As a member of Foster, you receive a lot of feedback on your writing. I’ve sent 30 drafts through Foster and gotten feedback on each of them. I now consider feedback a critical part of the writing experience.
In the beginning, getting feedback is difficult. It is hard seeing people tell you they don’t understand what you’ve written or question what you believed to be fact. It is hard seeing so many mistakes that seem obvious once an editor points them out. Of course this makes writing better in the end, but it is difficult as it is happening.
I’ve gotten much better at receiving feedback on my writing, and these are the lessons I’ve learned in the process.
Take advice one piece at a time
Receiving feedback on your work can be overwhelming. It’s tough to get a notification that says “so and so has left 37 comments.” Sometimes, this makes me dread opening a piece to address that feedback.
Usually what I do is go through the simple line editing, spelling, and grammatical changes first. These are easy, and help you get into the mood for receiving feedback.
Next, I got through all the larger feedback one at a time. If the change is simple, like adding a piece of information or changing one sentence, I make that change. If it is a bigger change, like reworking complete paragraphs or sections, I might start with ideas and then return as an idea crystallizes. Breaking down big pieces of feedback into smaller, more manageable chunks this way can be helpful.
Don’t be afraid to mark feedback as complete prematurely. If you’ve tried your best to address a piece of feedback, that’s often good enough. Don’t be loyal to what you have written if completely changing it will make it better. I find that writing more and editing down is the best way to create something great.
Be specific with what kind of feedback you want
Editors are not mind readers. If you have specific things you’d like feedback on, say so! If an idea is at the early stages, state that you don’t want line edits. If you think the structure is wrong, ask for structure recommendations.
This doesn't mean editors will always follow your instructions, but it does anchor them with some recommendations that help them be more useful to you.
It also makes it easier for you to disregard irrelevant information. If someone provides recommendations in an area where you didn’t want feedback, you can easily ignore it.
What you take for granted isn’t as obvious as you might think
One big lesson I’ve learned from getting so much feedback is that creating context is critical to writing well.
A parable by David Foster Wallace from his “This is Water” speech sums up this idea:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
The context that is obvious to you, isn’t always obvious to your reader and especially isn’t obvious to people giving feedback. Providing information about your reader and the goal of the piece helps editors do a better job, and adding more examples throughout your piece helps readers.
This is something that I got feedback on the most throughout the drafts I submitted to Foster: concepts need anchoring in something. Show, don’t tell.
Get to know your feedback giver
Getting feedback from someone is a lot easier when you know them and trust that they are trying to help you. In real life, you usually know the people giving you feedback. In Foster, you often don’t, but they're still real people.
Foster is a community of contributors and writers from around the world. I’ve been lucky to speak with many of them, and after I have, I can better receive their feedback. Our discussions also gave them a better understanding of me and the topics I focus on, which helps them provide better feedback on my writing.
Feedback can be wrong
Although people giving you feedback are generally trying to make your piece better, sometimes they can be wrong. Just like how you can be wrong with what you write, they can be wrong with the feedback they give you.
If you disagree with their feedback, use it to make your piece stronger. Double down on improving that area to improve your point even further.
Feedback is there to help make your writing better
Ultimately, remember that editors are trying to help you improve your writing.
If you feel like this isn’t the case, change things up. Get feedback from different people or at different stages of your writing. Try publishing a piece or two without feedback. Talk with other writers about how they handle feedback. Give some feedback yourself.
It’s up to you to publish the writing in the end, so you should do what you think is best. For me, feedback is an essential part of that, and Foster has been key to realizing that.