Making Feedback Work for You

by Emma Catherine Perry

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Soliciting feedback on your written work is a great way to move from an earlier draft to a more polished and successful version of your writing project. Whether you are composing a personal statement for an application, a reflective essay, or a chapter of your dissertation, getting feedback can provide useful perspective on your work and help you generate ideas for moving forward.

Feedback can be crucial to growing as a writer, but it can also be confusing and distressing. As a consultant with the UGA Writing Center, I often work with students who aren’t quite sure what to make of the comments or grades they have received from a professor, TA, or peer.

As a creative writer, I have experienced this firsthand! Having been a participant in over 20 different workshops, I am used to hearing and reading a lot of different and often conflicting opinions on my work. Some of it’s useful, some of it’s less-so, but it can all make my head spin if I’m not methodical about the way I process and utilize the information.

While I am still refining my approach to feedback, I do have a few tips and tricks to share that have worked for me:

See it feelingly

I used to read my feedback, wondering “What did this reader think?” I have recently discovered that a more useful question can be “How did my writing make this reader feel?”

Readers use a lot of different words to describe the work they are critiquing, and this variety of vocabulary means that writers often have a lot of interpreting to do to glean useful information from their feedback. If someone says of your writing, “It doesn’t flow,” they feel confused about the relationship between elements of your argument: you need to spell out your thinking more clearly. If another reviewer says, “You need to be more concise,” they feel overwhelmed: cut everything that isn’t essential to supporting your thesis.

This approach works for identifying strengths in your work, too! If you receive positive feedback, chances are your reader felt intrigued, curious, or even convinced (which is what you’re probably going for!). You can use that positive feedback to learn effective strategies for producing the readerly response you want.

Look for patterns

If you are receiving feedback from multiple sources, or if you are receiving feedback on multiple drafts or projects, you have an opportunity to look for patterns that can help you focus your revision efforts. Is there one particular issue that keeps coming up again and again?

Maybe you need to provide more details. Maybe you need to work on your use of sources and quotations. Maybe your papers start out great, but then get confusing and rambly towards the end. If you have taken the time to see your feedback feelingly (as described above), you can also think in terms of readerly response: does my writing have a similar effect on multiple people?

Hearing the same feedback more than once is a gift–use it! If you pay attention to your own writing habits, then you can adjust your writing process to better achieve your goals.

Make a plan

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by a lot of feedback. A revision plan is an important step in making sure feedback is helpful. Whether you write a letter to yourself summarizing your reviewer’s comments or whether you use bullet points, I find my revision plans to be most effective when they include the following:

  1. One major goal for revision: Just one! What is the one thing you can do to create the biggest positive change toward your next draft?
  2. Two secondary goals: These are revision ideas that will probably help, but aren’t as high-priority or high-impact as Goal #1. Get to them if you have time before your deadline.
  3. A timeline: Crucial! When will you do this work? How will you know when you’re done? Writing can take as long as you let it; don’t let one draft of one paper swallow you whole. Set internal deadlines for yourself, and when it’s time to submit your draft and move on, submit your draft and move on.
  4. (Optional) An appointment with the Writing Center: If you could use some help interpreting feedback, making a revision plan, or just setting an internal deadline for yourself, we have expert consultants ready to help!

Take it or leave it

A parting thought: not all feedback deserves your respectful attention. If you are on the receiving end of feedback that is shallow and unconsidered or that doesn’t seem well-intentioned, it’s okay to let it go! At the end of the day, this is your writing, and you always get the final say.

At the end of the day, this is your writing, and you always get the final say.

I have a story about unhelpful feedback to share: The very first week of my MFA program, I was up for workshop. I was so nervous. I submitted my poem drafts before class and did my best to surf the waves of anxiety that kept swelling up as the time for my review got closer. Would I be discovered as a fraud? A bad writer? Did I belong here, in this program full of professional poets?

The experience of the actual workshop was not nearly as bad as I feared. My classmates were kind and supportive, and their feedback was encouraging, though not unanimously laudatory. I was feeling pleased with myself for having survived as I sifted through the written responses, until I found feedback submitted by a fellow student who hadn’t spoken during class. His comments on my poems were neither kind nor supportive. He had just written, “Meh” and “Sorry, this just isn’t doing it for me.”

It had happened. Someone had hated my writing. Honestly, I was relieved. I didn’t have to worry about it anymore! Also, his bland dismissal was so unhelpful, it freed me to ignore it completely.

Photo by Basil James on Unsplash

Writer, I hope you get a lot of positive and constructive feedback that helps you revise your work into a shape you love. I bet you will also get feedback so negative that all you can do in response is laugh. It happens to everyone! If you write long enough, it will happen to you! Maybe it already has. Do what you need to do to get past it–burn it in the flame of a ritual candle, shred it with your credit card statements, frame it and hang it on the wall–but do remember: It’s impossible to please everyone, no matter how well you write.

Emma Catherine Perry is a fourth-year doctoral student in the English department. She has a BA in art history from Kenyon College and an MFA in poetry from Cornell University. At the University of Georgia, Emma serves as instructor of record for both critical and creative writing classes and as the assistant director of the UGA Writing Center. Her critical research explores the implications of artificial intelligence for posthuman rhetorics, and she writes poetry and creative nonfiction.