Like many people, I dislike feeling judged.
When it comes to writing, though, I’ve learned to welcome critical feedback, even if it is painful.
Jewell Parker Rhodes, in The African American Guide to Writing and Publishing Nonfiction, says of the need for feedback:
As the author, you may have ‘blind spots,’ assumptions you’ve made about how well you’re communicating. Remember, you already know what you want to say, but it may not be as clear to the reader. Through constructive criticism and revisions, you can mend any gaps in your manuscript.
I particularly like that before something is published—when feedback can prevent an error, misstatement, or poor thinking from actually appearing in public.
As an editor, I understand that comments are a part of the process. It’s hard, but I welcome criticism because it makes me a more effective writer (thanks to all who gave feedback on this book; see Thank You).
For crucial pieces, take the time to gather reaction through collaboration. This can seem like a hassle and too time-consuming, but it can save you grief down the road. Somebody may spot a critical mistake or point of confusion—even, in business, an unseen legal liability.
An aside based on my experience: Don’t react to feedback right away. You may be defensive and reject constructive criticism. Give it time to settle in your mind. Reflect on it carefully. Almost all reactions are legitimate and many offer good reasons to reconsider what you’ve done.
WARNING: WATCH FOR CAMELS
Beware, however, of building a camel.
The old saying goes, “A camel is a horse designed by a committee.” (Alec Issigonis, the creator of the hit European car called the Mini, is credited with coining the phrase.)
Though it’s good to seek collaboration, I’m not a fan of groupthink. Working by committee, for instance, has its strengths in terms of putting diverse ideas on the table (Pro Tip 32), but ultimately some individual needs to make a decision about what to commit to paper.
Too many times committees are about diluting responsibility for a piece. Instead, start by giving everyone a chance for input—a mind dump—then ask one or no more than two people to draft a document. Avoid having everyone in the group copyedit (Pro Tip 40) word for word; instead, ask them to look at the information and ideas and give more general feedback, while leaving the actual language to an effective writer and editor.
This is tough to do, as all want to see their words on the page, but endlessly editing a document to please everyone is difficult and doesn’t produce great work. Instead, it is incumbent on a piece’s editor to make sure everyone’s thoughts and contributions are included and respected.
Don’t build a camel, but also don’t think that you, all alone, have all the answers. Vet your work. Build strong feedback channels. Be strong enough to take constructive criticism.
As Stephen King puts it in On Writing:
Thank God I’ve got someone around who’ll tell me my fly’s unzipped before I go out in public that way.
If you are writing a longer piece, like a book, it helps to get reactions early.
One way to do that is to workshop your work. This could come from trusted family and friends to start, but at some point you’ll want to expose your composition to the outside world.
Think about joining a writing group (there are many all around the country) and asking its members to read and provide comments. Sure, criticism can hurt, especially if you’ve made an emotional investment in a piece, but it is necessary to gather objective thoughts to improve your work as you revise relentlessly (Pro Tip 40).
Perhaps you worry that reading what you’ve done won’t be worth other people’s time. First, I find that writers like to help other writers, and editors can be generous. Second, if a writer or editor isn’t interested after you pitch a piece, that could tell you something about your work. It may need some rejigging to register better. And if some start reading a piece then abandon it, that means that you aren’t holding their interest and need to rethink what you’ve done.
Workshopping can take different forms, like doing it for a class on writing at a college or university. But it can be as simple as sharing your work and soliciting feedback.
In a letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos, then head of Amazon, explained that too many of his executives bungled getting feedback on their ideas. In response, he banned PowerPoint presentations at his company. Instead, leaders were directed to write six-page memos discussing whatever issues they were dealing with. Bezos wrote:
Here’s what we’ve figured out. Often, when a memo isn’t great, [the writers] mistakenly believe [that a] six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more!…
The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two…. [A] great memo probably should take a week or more.
Cultivating criticism is an essential skill of an effective writer.
Getting feedback before you publish something can save you grief.
Justin Bariso reported in Inc. on a post that Jonathan Neman, CEO of Sweetgreen (a restaurant chain specializing in salads), made during the pandemic:
Seventy-eight percent of hospitalizations due to Covid are obese and overweight people. Is there an underlying problem that perhaps we have not given enough attention to?
As you can imagine, the post caused an uproar, as summarized by Bariso:
Critics claimed Neman’s … comments minimized the effect vaccinations and other safety measures had on fighting the pandemic, while also discriminating against the obese and overweight.
Neman apologized, saying:
Words matter and the words I chose were insensitive and oversimplified a very complex issue that is impacted by larger socioeconomic factors.
Bariso pointed out the obvious:
Of course, Neman may have benefited from having a respected friend, colleague, or member of his [communications] team review his [original] message and offer feedback.