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?
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.
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.
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.