​How to Ask for (and Get) Good Feedback

When Violet told me what she planned to write about last week, it made me think of all the times I’ve been on the other side of the table. Having worked in Writing Centers for a decade now, I have a lot of practice responding in peer workshops. But as a writer, I often find that my readers aren’t as comfortable responding to my writing. For me, one of the most useful things I ever learned as a writer was how to get people to give good feedback to my writing. 

What Usually Happens

When you ask someone to respond to something you’ve written, you’ll usually get one of two kinds of responses. These are the things that it’s easiest for people to say about writing, for reasons I’ll discuss below, but they’re very rarely useful feedback to get as a writer.

Global responses: “It’s great!”

In most workshops, you’ll hear people say a lot of things that sum up the whole paper in a few words. Responses like

  • “I like it.”
  • “It’s great!”
  • “It flows,” and
  • “I think it’s good.”

are easy to give, but they don’t really tell us anything about our writing.

Okay. So you like it. What does that tell me about what I should change? This kind of global feedback is usually too broad to be useful.

Local responses: “You misspelled ‘hullabaloo.”

The second common kind of response has the opposite problem: it’s too specific to be useful. When a reader points out a misspelling or a punctuation mistake, it’s nice in that it allows you to correct that mistake. But it doesn’t really tell you whether the paper is doing what you want it to, or if the reader understands what you’re trying to say, or what they think about your ideas. If you’re trying to figure out where to go next with this paper, the odds are good that you’ll be just as uncertain after getting responses like this as you were before.1

So often, at the end of a workshop session in class, or after having your roommate look over your paper, whatever confusions, frustrations, and anxieties you had at the beginning are still there.

So How Can We Fix It?

Take this same friend. Ask them about something completely different. Your computer, say.

“Hey, Jerry, can you fix my computer?”

“I don’t know,” he’ll probably say. “What’s wrong with it?”

Or, to say it more directly: you need to ask a better question. As a geek, I can say pretty conclusively that there are some things most people can fix–”I don’t know how to send an email”–and there are some things most people can’t fix–”The thing just won’t turn on.” Until I know what I’m looking for, I don’t know how I can help. The same exact thing is true of writing.

The biggest reason that we don’t get useful feedback from our peers in workshop is that we’re not telling them what to look for. One of my favorite writers said this excellently the other day: “If you’re not asking the right question, there IS no correct answer.” Most of the time, we’re not asking the right questions, and sometimes, we’re not asking any at all.

Figure out what you want.

One of the most useful things you can do in asking for feedback on a paper is understand your paper yourself. Before you start, do some writing and thinking about what you see happening in your paper. Too often, we put together a paper and then feel overwhelmed, relieved that it’s “done” and unwilling or unable to look at it again. This is often when we bring our papers to a reader–whether a friend, roommate, or Writing Center consultant–hoping they’ll tell us what to do.

Really, though, if you don’t understand your paper, it’s really hard to know what to do with feedback, even when it’s really good. Readers are extremely important in helping us figure out where to go next, but for me, it’s really important to know where we are first.

Before you ask anyone for feedback, give yourself some time–at least a few hours, I think–and then come back to your paper. Read it over, and ask yourself a few questions. Here are some things to think about:

  • What in this paper do I feel least confident in?
  • What do I think my paper is trying to say?
  • If I had to take something out of my paper what would it be? Why?
  • If I could add anything to my paper, what would it be? Why haven’t I done it?
  • How do I want to sound in this paper? What kind of person do I want my reader
    to think I am?

To be honest, these kinds of questions can often lead to changes that you want to make to your paper right now, before you even get to a reader. That’s awesome! One of the worst outcomes of a workshop is having a reader tell you something you already know. The point of getting feedback from a reader is being able to hear stuff you can’t figure out yourself. This will help you get clear of all of the stuff you can.

Ask a thoughtful question.

I think when we ask people questions about our papers, the questions we ask are often the same as the answers that frustrate us. “What do you think?” is probably going to get us something like “I like it.” “Is there anything I need to fix?” Will probably get us “You missed a comma here.”

What makes a question “good” in this context is that it is thoughtful–meaning both that the reader has to think to answer it, and that the answer will make you think. If you ask a question with a simple answer, it’ll be hard for you to take that simple answer and turn it into a plan for your paper.

The more specific to your paper a question is, the more likely it’ll lead to useful feedback, but here are a few ideas about the kinds of questions that can get helpful, challenging answers.

  • What do you think I’m trying to say?
  • What do you want to hear more about?
  • What do you find confusing?

Specify the scope of response.

This sounds fancy, but it really pretty simple: if you don’t want their responses to be too global or too local, ask them to respond to a specific section. This might mean asking questions like:

  • What am I saying in paragraph 4?
  • Do I give enough examples to support the claim I make in this section?
  • Does my voice on this page come across as sarcastic or uninformed?

If you can focus your questions toward the middle ground between “really big” and “really small,” you should get answers that fill that same middle ground.

Your Writing Is Yours

This is a hard thing to hear, but it’s true. Often, people come to the Writing Center because they want us to tell them what to do, but we can’t know what’s best for your paper. Only you can. This is one of the hardest things for me to teach my students in my English classes. Even as their instructor, I can’t tell them what to do–I can only help them to make good choices.

This, perhaps, is the most important thing I can say about getting good feedback. If you’re looking for instructions, you’ll almost always be disappointed. If you’re looking for someone to help you make choices, you have everything you need to get everything you want.

 


  1. This brings up an interesting point: one thing to bear in mind with all of
    this is what kind of feedback you want. If you’re at the end of the writing
    process, and you’re getting ready to turn in your final draft, this kind of
    micro-level, “polish it up” feedback might be what’s most important. But if
    it’s your first draft, and you’re just trying out some new ideas, probably
    you’re looking for something more. 

Last Updated: 5/19/2015 12:13 PM