the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first draftsfrom Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott.
When my students and clients first hear about writer Anne Lamott’s concept of the ‘shitty first draft’, the sense of relief can be enormous.
Just to write, releasing ourselves from the pressure of writing something good, and also knowing that everyone’s first draft is rubbish can be incredibly freeing.
Once we’ve written a first draft though, and taken it through various stages of self-editing, there will come a time to ask for some outside feedback.
In fact, one of the best ways to improve our writing craft can be to get feedback – whether that’s from a writing professional, an ideal reader or a kindly (perhaps long-suffering) family member.
But getting unhelpful or misguided feedback can be one of the worst things we can do for our writing.
Writing coach, Jenny Nash, writes on Jane Friedman’s blog about just this topic:
“Most writing groups tiptoe around glaring weaknesses in the work being shared and sometimes tell outright lies about it, because they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. All the writer hears is praise or vague criticism that isn’t very actionable, and so they assume that what they are writing is solid (if not awesome) and they plow on creating fundamentally flawed work”Nash, 2016 in ‘The 4 hidden dangers of writing groups’.
In this post, I want to focus on how best to take advantage of non-specialist feedback on your writing.
(By non-specialist, I mean someone who is not a specialist in your subject and someone who is probably not a trained or experienced writing professional.)
Maybe you’re a financial advisor writing a book about pitfalls new investors should avoid. Rather than asking a fellow financial professional to look at the manuscript, why not ask someone who’s not even sure what a financial advisor does?
Non-specialists might tell us if our text is engaging, if we have pitched the writing for a general audience, and whether we are asking the reader to fill in any gaps. Unlike writing professionals though, these readers may not be able to advise us on how to fix these issues.
A word of caution here – it’s important to let the reader know the type of feedback you want.
A writing professional (such as a writing coach or editor) will ask you about your stage in the writing process and where to focus the feedback.
They should also be able to guide you to the type of feedback that is most appropriate for your stage or lead you to someone else who can help.
But if you are working with someone who can give you insight as a non-specialist reader, they may not ask you what kind of feedback you want.
It will be up to you to guide them to the bigger picture before their inner grammar police start hounding your delicate draft.
There’s nothing worse than asking for feedback on the first draft of your book and all you get back are comments about commas in the wrong place.
Ok, you really should give a clean draft to the reader to make their life easier, but you also need to let them know that it’s a draft.
You can say something like ‘I’m still working on this but what do you think of the general idea?’.
‘Is there anything else I need to include?’
Types of feedback to ask for at different stages of the writing process and how to ask:
1. In the beginning, you’ll want feedback on ideas and content
- Did you see what you expected after reading the title and introduction?
- Is there anything missing?
- Is there anything there that you don’t think is relevant?
2. On later drafts, you’ll want feedback on organisation and impact
- Is everything in the right place?
- Does it follow logically?
- What action does this make you want to take, if any?
- What do you want to find out more about after reading this?
- How does this piece make you feel?
3. On final drafts, you’ll want feedback on surface errors
- Are there any obvious errors in grammar or spelling?
- Is there any part of this you needed to read twice to understand what I was saying?
But asking for feedback is only a part of using feedback to improve craft. You also need to know how best to receive feedback and what to do with it.
Be a critical apprentice
After helping thousands of writers over the years, I’ve realised that when it comes to receiving feedback, there are three main types of writers.
The first is the defensive writer. This is the writer who has an explanation for EVERY piece of feedback or suggestion. ‘Oh, the reason I wrote it like this is because the readers already know about xyz.’ This is the writer who doesn’t really need to ask for feedback as they’re never going to take it onboard anyway.
If you work in any kind of teaching, advising or coaching capacity, maybe you’ve had some clients who are unteachable or uncoachable, and you wonder why they even signed up in the first place. Don’t be that person when you’re asking for feedback.
The second writer takes every piece of feedback on board and changes the text so much that it no longer resembles their own voice. They’ll take on comments of every random reader in a well-meaning writing group to make their own work non-recognisable. They are also non-discerning about who they get feedback from and why.
The third writer is the critical apprentice. This is my favourite writer to work with. This is also the writer that I try to be. The critical apprentice will be grateful for feedback. However, they’ll consider suggestions carefully and decide whether they are helpful or not.
The critical apprentice knows that all feedback is not created equal. This writer realises that often there is no right or wrong but they value the different perspectives that others give them. They can take on board what is useful and leave the rest.
So, be the critical apprentice. Listen to the feedback, thank the reader, and then decide whether to use the feedback or not.
And above all, remember it’s your text and you get to call the shots.
This is why, in my editing or writing coaching, I won’t change something for the writer without their knowledge – I will make suggestions and ask questions but the writer needs to have the final say.
So, ask different people for feedback, be clear about the feedback you want, and be a gracious but discerning recipient of feedback.
Want a second pair of eyes on a piece of writing before you get it out into the world? Message me below to let me know about your writing project!
Lamott, A. (2020). Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life. United Kingdom: Canongate Books.
Nash, J. 2016 ‘The 4 hidden dangers of writing groups’