8 Things I Learned From 52 Weeks of Feedback

On April 15, 2012, I set out on a mission.

I was feeling discouraged by the lack of feedback in the world of writing. We live in a fast-paced culture where editors are often too busy to include us in their editing process, and in which readers often consume without providing any response, whether they are tight on time or just don’t think of it. The Internet seems to have raised a new generation of “scanners” – readers who quickly gloss over a piece, check the length and read the headers and sub headers before deciding if they are even going to continue reading at all. Bloggers are actually encouraged to cater to this type of reader by compartmentalizing longer pieces into smaller chunks with catchy subheadings (I’m doing that in this very article). Throw in a few photos to make things interesting because, my goodness, a page full of text? We’re lucky if readers get to the bottom of our articles, of pieces we work so hard to produce.

I know this because, at times, I am that reader. So, how can I expect to hear from my readers if I don’t provide feedback to others?

Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man's growth without destroying his roots. Frank A. Clark

Why do I care so much about feedback?

I realize that not every writer cares about receiving feedback. Some are content to throw ideas out to the universe without any sense of where they end up. But that’s not my approach. My eagerness for feedback isn’t some superficial need for attention. It’s a genuine desire for information that will help me sharpen my sword and produce better stories. It’s a longing for discussion around the ideas I’m presenting. Like many writers, it’s the need to know that someone finds my words helpful, insightful or inspiring – that there is a purpose to what I’m doing. Call it affirmation, but I’m not talking about a pat on the back or a gold star. For me, it’s the force behind what I do, the reason I see the world in words, the result of a lot of hard thinking and hard work.

The Challenge

So, on April 15 of last year I set out on a mission to choose an article (mostly online) each week and provide feedback to the author. This could be a comment about the actual writing or the ideas presented. I kept my comments positive and shied away from offering constructive criticism since this was all occurring on a public forum. Some writers asked me to choose their pieces to provide feedback on, and so I provided more constructive criticism privately. If I couldn’t provide genuine feedback, I didn’t provide any at all. As tempting as it was sometimes, I never wanted to comment simply for the sake of commenting. I only gave my feedback when I had time to think it through, and provide an authentic, thoughtful response.

You might be wondering, if it was 52 Weeks of Feedback, why did it take me 80? The most basic answer: I had a baby. Things got busy and I missed a week here and there. But I stuck to it and still provided feedback for 52 weeks. You can check out my reading list here.

So, let’s get down to it. What did I learn after my 52 weeks of reading and commenting?

What I Learned From 52 Weeks of Feedback

1. Providing comments on a regular basis paved the way for new relationships with other writers and bloggers. The majority of authors who received my feedback were thankful that I took the time to comment, and this sparked the beginning of a meaningful exchange. Sometimes it didn’t go beyond that first exchange; in other cases, I am still in regular contact with some of these writers.

2. The weekly challenge encouraged me to keep reading. I have heard many times that the best thing a writer can do to improve his or her craft is to read. As much as the project was about providing feedback, an unintended benefit was that I read more than I would have otherwise.

3. Keeping track of the articles I was reading helped me clarify which topics I am most passionate about. Looking back on the list, here are the dominant themes: parenting and the outdoors, motherhood, adventure, goal setting, thoughts on the writing process, creativity, and women in sports.

4. Knowing I had to provide feedback forced me to read more attentively. I fought the temptation to skim or skip ahead so that I could provide an informed response. As a result I also took more away from the article and invested myself more in the ideas that were presented. I allowed myself the time to think, even if it was on a topic I wasn’t particularly interested in.

The Six Golden Rules of Writing: Read, read, read, and write, write, write. ~ Ernest Gaines

5. Often my first comment was the beginning of a meaningful discussion, not just with the author but with other commenters.

6. This wasn’t a reason for my feedback, but looking at my web traffic, referring links increasingly came from articles I commented on. This proves to me that meaningful feedback will eventually loop back to its source.

7. I learned a heck of a lot about writing – from techniques that make for effective storytelling to the power of anecdotes as a way of making ideas stick. And after 52 Weeks of Feedback, here is the one piece of criticism I came up with the most (something I am also working on): cut the fluff. Be rigorous with your choice of words. While I’m a strong believer that long-form pieces belong on the web, longer is not necessarily better. One editor put it this way: learn to distinguish the pepper (relevant details) from the fly shit (details that don’t ultimately serve the piece). Help your reader get to the end of your articles.

8. Committing to a challenge helped me to create a new habit. I can’t promise I’ll continue the process weekly, but I will take the time more often to provide feedback for other writers.

There you have it! I encourage you to take on your own feedback challenge, whether it’s weekly, monthly or whenever you feel like it. As I have written above, I learned a lot from the process, and the practice has resulted in some long-term benefits: relationships with other writers, meaningful discussion and helpful tips that will improve my writing.

Is feedback important to you? Why or why not?

30 Things I Learned About Yoga (Yoga Challenge: Day 30)

30 Days of Yoga = approximately 36 hours on the mat in 1 month and a whole lot of learning…

1. One of the best ways to awake from Savasana is in the same way you would wake a lover or a small child: with gentleness and tenderness.

2. When we humble ourselves, let ourselves rest and reach out to others for help, we are made stronger by the community and energy that surrounds us.

Photo by Paul Zizka Photography: http://www.zizka.ca

3. Sometimes allowing ourselves to feel pain is the only way to get out of it.

4. Yoga is not about the how. If yoga is about anything at all, it’s about the who and why. It forces us to be aware of who we are being and why we have come to the mat.

5. If we really watch our breath – notice when it is smooth and when it is laboured – we’ll know when too much is too much or when it is time to try something new.

6. Yoga is a great chill pill if you’re ever feeling stressed at work, had an argument with your partner or feeling overwhelmed with life’s circumstances.

7. Remain present in the small things.

8. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you felt yesterday, how solid your practise was compared to today or what progress you’re making. Each day you come to the mat is a new day. Ask yourself, how am I feeling in this very moment? And that is where you are.

9. What teachers do you have in your life?  Who and what can help you heal whatever is a wound within your own personality?

10. It’s fine, and totally necessary, to have a good sense of humour about yoga.

11. Yoga is an incredible gift. It’s not something that we should be consuming like a chocolate bar. Receive it like a gift that you didn’t expect and didn’t deserve.

12. Take yourself – your thoughts and goals – out of the equation and no doubt more will become available to you in yoga than ever before. Goals have their place, but will only be effective if you allow the journey to mean more than the destination.

13. Instead of expecting the same thing for our practise day after day, we can go into each practise expressing a different quality depending on the day of the week.

14. Treat your body as a temple. Don’t feel you “can’t eat this” or “can’t do that,” but be prepared to take the necessary measures to flush it out eventually and bring your body back to all its shiny goodness. That stuff won’t come out on its own.

15. Have a ‘play date’ with yoga sometimes. Just go and have fun with it, try new things, explore and come into it like a kid again, full of excitement.

16. Yoga prepares us for challenges we face in life.

Photo by Paul Zizka Photography: http://www.zizka.ca

17. Sometimes doors will only open up if we open them on our own.

18. Getting to yoga should be the least challenging part of your day.

19. Imagine how your practise will change if you consider that each breath in brings you expansive power.

20. Don’t waste your mind in yoga. Just keep it focused on your body and on being free from judgement.

21. Open yourself to the community that surrounds you. People are there to support you and encourage you if you let them. So many of us walk through life thinking we can do everything on our own. We simply cannot, nor are we meant to.

22. Each time, approach the mat like you never have before.

23. There is no suffering in yoga. When we come to our mats, we are there to heal, find peace and overcome fears.

24. The true yoga challenge really exists off the mat.

25. Keep changing. Keep things fresh. Life is boring if you’re reading the same page recurrently.

26. Lean on others and lean on your mat like it was a warm embrace. Let yourself open up just a little more each day and breathe through any pain that comes up. Work hard to avoid that knee-jerk reaction of getting out of postures that are uncomfortable.

27. In our quest for freedom from any shackles in our life, we need to push ourselves to new things while still erring on the side of reason and caution. Don’t lose sight of the end goal. There is no freedom in pushing too hard and hurting ourselves more.

28. If you ever feel panicked in your breathing in class, attend a Pranayama workshop or spend some time at home working on your breathing, even just for 10 minutes.

29. Yoga won’t be a healing force if your mind isn’t open to that possibility.

30. Yoga is 100% an individual and collective experience. How is that possible? Your individual practise has a ripple effect in your life and the people you interact with each day.

© Meghan J. Ward, 2011.


The True Challenge (Yoga Challenge: Day 24)

I took another rest day today. It got me thinking what the meaning of “rest” is in this context.

On a busy day of work, yoga offers me a break from my computer, from staring at that bright screen and from words, in general. If I can turn that part of my brain off for even just a hour, it is a welcome alternative. And yet right now I find myself taking the time to write about Day 24 of this yoga challenge when what I really need and want is a break from the old MacBook. In that way, the challenge of writing each day about the yoga challenge has become a practise of its own.

I have to come to my Mac in the same way as I come to the Mat. With intention, focus and a desire to learn and share.

My other yoga teacher.

Lesson from Day 24

I’ve learned an important lesson through this whole challenge and that is that the true yoga challenge really exists off the mat. My time on the mat has given me valuable skills to take into my life, into my career, my day-to-day activities and my relationships. I’ve posted about each of these aspects throughout this yoga challenge.

So, my challenge to you is this: In what areas of your life could you be taking a “yoga challenge?”

© Meghan J. Ward, 2011.

Discomfort vs. Suffering (Yoga Challenge: Day 23)

There is no suffering in yoga.

Today our instructor brought our attention to the fine line between discomfort and pain. I had never fully understood the difference until today. Discomfort is good for us, to a certain extent. It opens up new possibilities in our bodies and in our minds. Yoga shouldn’t cause pain; it should only reveal the tightness, inflexibility and old injuries that are already there. The same thing goes for our emotional and mental state. Yoga has this way of unearthing things we buried long ago, whether we were aware of it or not.

This yoga challenge has peeled away all the layers for me and allowed me to identify which areas I need to work on the most, in my body and in my mind and spirit. I am sure there are more, and I’ll discover them soon enough. The important thing here is to embrace the discomfort instead of running from it. To ignore it or brush it under the carpet will only make it harder to deal with later.

Lesson from Day 23

Now, I’ll go back to where I started this post. There is no suffering in yoga. When we come to our mats, we are there to heal, find peace and overcome fears. Today a woman in class was trying a Tripod headstand and fell over each time with a hard, dramatic ‘slap’ on the floor. She didn’t hurt herself, most importantly, but by falling over she actually did herself a favour. She allowed herself to try. Eventually, she’ll stick it.

And then new work begins.

© Meghan J. Ward, 2011.