As a writer and storyteller, I pick my words purposefully. I stare at them for hours, contemplating alternatives and fussing over order. To see these choice words tarred with a red pen, or track changes, can feel demoralising.
How do we give and receive feedback without invoking a fear of failure? How do we turn this experience into something positive where we don’t grin to cover our gritted teeth?
Before working at Empathy I worked as a high school journalism teacher. My students were 15-18 years old, and week after week they submitted writing for me to edit.
Sometimes they scowled while I explained active tense. Sometimes they told me the 50 sets of ellipses were intentional and how dare I question them. But on the whole, they took my feedback and made changes, and their work improved dramatically throughout the year.
Watching my students build their skills and flourish into better writers than I ever was at 17 has helped me hone both my feedback-giving skills and how I view feedback of my own writing.
It’s not time to ditch the feedback sandwich just yet
The feedback sandwich might be dated and simplistic, but it shouldn’t be ditched completely. There is definitely something to be said for telling the person what you like about their writing.
With students and colleagues alike, I try to emphasise what is going well with the writing, what I connect with. When I come to the constructive criticism, I emphasise how these changes could further strengthen what’s already working well.
It’s not just about softening the blow, or going easy on someone, it’s about how we learn. While understanding where we have gone wrong is obviously helpful, it’s equally helpful to understand what we got right. We create our own models for success by recognising when we did it right.
You can choose to insert the positive layer of the sandwich wherever you like. Whether you opt for the old doughy favourite and surround the hard-to-hear criticism with positive feedback or save it all for desert at the end, what’s important is drawing attention to what success looks like in their own work and how it contrasts with the areas they need to improve.
It’s an ongoing conversation, not a lecture
Another way to put this one is: don’t be an asshole. Giving feedback should be an opportunity for both the giver and the receiver to learn. In both positions, query things, ask questions, learn about the other person’s process and thinking.
Don’t assume you know why they’ve chosen to structure something a certain way, or use a particular word. Be open to the possibility your edit isn’t necessary, and conversely, be prepared to back up why you did something.
Be that 17 year old high school student
I don’t think I’ll ever be immune to criticism. That’s ok. If it didn’t sting just a little, I wouldn’t be fully invested. I wouldn’t care. But instead of carrying those red pen scars with me in a negative way, I choose to see feedback as my students did, as an opportunity to grow, to improve, to move forward with my writing. I choose to see it as a privilege writers in teams of one don’t have.
I choose to be humble. Be human. Accept I cannot get everything right every time. Of course, I take pleasure when the red pen is almost non-existent, but I try not to beat myself up when it’s prolific.
Feed forward not feedback
Try not to see feedback as being just about what you’re working on right now. Sure, you want to put out a good report or article or blog post. But it’s also about improving the next piece of writing you do. Record your common mistakes so you can consciously tackle them in the next thing you write. Put Post-its on your desk with your writing blind spots, so you have a visual reminder next time you write. When you start to see those blind spots disappearing from your writing, take down a Post-it and move on to another one.
For creatives, feedback can feel like a personal blow. Many of us, whether we’re writers or designers or researchers, see our work and our writing as part of our personal identity. If we can’t do this right, then who are we? If you combine a high achiever mentality with this, feedback can feel devastating.
If I ever start to feel that way about feedback, I remember giving feedback to my students. It was never about trying to make them feel crappy or tell them they weren’t a good writer. It was about showing them their good work could be even better. It was about steering them towards the fulfilment of their talents. It was an acknowledgement that talent only gets you so far, and if you really want to be great you accept that and see feedback as an opportunity to keep learning and improving, to be better than your talent alone.
Embrace the red pen. It could be the making of you.