How to Receive Feedback on Your Writing

I like to think I can receive feedback graciously: to willingly accept the small shortcomings, the glaring limitations, in short, the literary blind-spots in my writing that others have pointed out to me, and to do so with grace.

I do it often enough — this giving and receiving of feedback — in other aspects of life, and see it as a positive, even necessary thing. Take driving, for instance. At least once, I’ve driven down the freeway and alerted another driver that his tire was completely flat. At a backed-up country road intersecting a highway, I’ve pulled up beside a pick-up truck full of gear (which had hurled past me a few kilometers back) to tell him his tail gate was open. And a chilly evening a few weeks ago, a driver pulled up beside me and instructed me to turn on my lights.

In each of these situations, the response was immediate, reactionary. The man with the flat tire communicated his panic back to me with a startled expression, and slowed down to pull off. The man in the stopped truck with the open tail gate jumped out and lightly cursed, hoping he hadn’t lost anything. And at the city stop sign, I’d flicked on my lights, then proceeded through the intersection without looking left or right.

I’d like to say that I was gracious to the driver who’d rolled down his window in the cold night air to tell me to turn on my lights. But I wasn’t. Instead, my mind was reeling. Why hadn’t my lights been at automatic? How could I have been so careless as to drive several blocks with no lights? In short, I was caught up in my own confusion. (And it’s difficult to be gracious in the midst of confusion.)

But after my wave of panic had passed, I was grateful to this driver. After all, he hadn’t needed to stick his neck out for me. My gratitude was delayed, unseen by him.

I took it for granted that the other two drivers were grateful I’d told them of the flat tire and the open tail gate. I understood their responses, without needing to be thanked. I would have wanted someone to tell me these things I could not see myself.

The difference between this kind of feedback while driving, and that which I normally see (honking, screeching, accelerating — in short, road rage), is in the intent. It’s the difference between I think you’d like to know, there’s something’s happening you can’t see and the rage of I don’t like your driving. Though both kinds are unsolicited, the messages are completely different.

There is an unwritten rule we’re reminded of constantly at swing dancing: don’t give your partner feedback on the dance floor. Social dancing isn’t a time for correction (that’s what lessons and practices are for). But it can be difficult, especially for beginners, to resist giving it. When they do, the message they send is this: “You’re doing it wrong, let me show you how to do it properly,” and though perhaps well-intentioned, is completely misguided (especially as it most often comes from those least qualified to give it).

But I often smile to myself when I hear the announcement repeated again: No feedback on the dance floor. I smile because it’s impossible to dance without giving feedback, and we do it all the time. But I understand that isn’t the kind that they’re talking about.

In true social dancing (that is, non-choreographed, improvised dancing), giving your partner feedback is intrinsic to the dance. Without it, there’s no connection, and connection is key. It’s how I can dance with a partner I’ve never met before, to music one or both of us may not have heard, and to do so gracefully. Usually, the feedback is nonverbal. But sometimes, it’s not. When a partner gently leads me through a move I’ve never even seen before, I often respond saying something with delight! That’s feedback. So is the actual movement of performing that (and every) move, of giving and receiving the physical feedback to each other that allows us to dance. 

We use the word “feedback” and “correction” interchangeably in our culture, as though one is the other. Correction, and feedback, are taken to mean “negative.” In writing, receiving feedback can take different forms. It can be the most obvious kind, the “your tire is flat” kind of feedback, usually solicited (though not always), when you send in your writing to be evaluated, whether by a professor or a publishing house.

Do we rage to defend what we’ve written? Or is it enough to say “Thank you!” It’s easy enough to accept a flat tire; more difficult to accept a flat argument that will, if unchecked, run us off the road.

But the fact is, as writers and readers, we’re constantly sending and receiving feedback to each other, and not just on social media where it is somehow represented in the form of likes and follows.

On my own blog, some of the feedback I find most valuable is as subtle as a lead’s in a social dance. Often, it’s not what’s being said verbally, but communicated in interest, presence, connection. Are my readers reading? Are they clicking on my posts, or deciding to read? Of course, with writing, sometimes you never know how your writing is being received, or if it is at all. That’s the beauty of blogging: feedback is immediate. I know how many people have read which posts, and when. The liking and follows, though appreciated, are somehow ancillary to the kind of feedback that allows me to grow and change as a writer. The comments are the most delightful part, like the expression of joy in dancing.

The more formal feedback, which I receive when I send my writing out for publication, or to workshop when I was in grad school, is different, more vigorous, and painful. Sometimes, the feedback is simply a “no.” Other times, it’s incredibly detailed. But after the panic and confusion have passed,  I try to look beyond myself, and let go of what I obliviously thought was happening — a delightful drive down a winding country road — and accept that I’d been driving with a flat tire, my tail gate open, and my lights off. And I feel incredibly grateful that someone took the effort and time to let me know what I couldn’t see myself.

Question: How do you graciously receive feedback?