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?

How To Create an Inspiring Workspace

Some days I sit down to work and I’m distracted by the piles of papers on my desk – invoices, notes from interviews, brochures from travels and Post-It notes of all colours. Books from a random array of topics have accumulated from research for various projects, leaving just enough room for my laptop. As a writer, I have to say that these kinds of distractions really affect my productivity and often send me to places like Starbucks, where I can work on a table that is clutter-free.

Inspired to make some changes, I called on the services of Margarita Ibbott of Downshifting: Professional Organizing Solutions in London, Ontario, to help me work my way out of my mess. Margarita gave me a virtual consultation and some tips to finding my desk again. After our call I set to work. Her tips turned out to be easy to follow and have proven to be completely sustainable. Weeks later, I am still enjoying a clean workspace.

Upon her recommendation, I also removed my wall calendar where I used to keep track of due dates (they are now in my Google Calendar). In its place I have put up some inspiring quotes, cards and photos – things to keep me focused and excited about life and my job.

You can read all about these improvements in my latest article, Calling the De-Clutter Therapist, on tujawellness.com.

Thanks Margarita! 

Olé! for Showing Up

Ever since I announced my challenge, 52 Weeks of Feedback, I have received a fair amount of…feedback! I didn’t expect to ignite discussion simply by raising the issue of the lack of feedback in the world of writing, but I did.

The challenge has incited a variety of responses. Some writers love the idea and realized that they love getting feedback but leave far too little for other people. One writer asked why I feel that there is a lack of feedback. Another said they liked the idea, but couldn’t commit to making it ‘a chore’ by formalizing the process of giving feedback.

The responses got me thinking about how we all operate as writers, and what drives us. I personally enjoy the sense of community that is created around my writing. It feels good to know that I have struck a chord in a reader or generated some kind of discussion. It also feels good to get positive feedback from an editor and to see progress. On the flip side, I appreciate the things I learn about improving my writing through the smallest of edits. I carry each of those lessons forward into the next article.

That being said, as a writer I need to be able to write to my highest standard and do my job without feedback. I can’t rely on a pat on my back to know I’m putting something good out there. I need to learn to know this for myself, have confidence in my skill and my creative flair – that touch that I, and only I, can put on a piece.

Writers are some of the most passionate people I know. When we become hooked by a particular idea, story or controversy, we dive into it, swimming in the depths of the material, research, interviews – anything we can get our hands on – before bringing the story to the surface. I know that I can’t comfortably bring anything forward until I’ve done the best job I can to get the story right and bring something new to the table. So, after all that work, I have to know for myself that I’ve done the best job that I can. No one else can do that for me. It’s icing on the cake if someone does.

I have a note on my bulletin board that says, Olé! for showing up. It comes from a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, which I’ve embedded below. Reflecting on the success of her book, Eat Pray Love, Gilbert muses on the expectations we have for writers and other creative people who create works of genius. I have never created one of these works (to my knowledge). But in every word there lies potential for genius. It is not something we can guarantee. All we can do is show up and let Genius do the rest.

highly recommend you take 20 minutes to watch this video. The last two minutes give me goosebumps every time.

The Doe-Eyed Writer

Last night I attended a fascinating panel discussion at The Communitea Cafe in Canmore about the state of Canada’s book and magazine industry. The panel, moderated by the Globe and Mail’s Ian Brown, included Jackie Flanagan, founder of albertaviewsLynn Coady and Curtis Gillespie, founders and editors of Eighteen Bridges; and Anne Collins, publisher extraordinaire at Random House. Needless to say, the people sitting behind the microphones drew a large crowd to the cafe, including the participants of the Literary Journalism program at The Banff Centre.

I was fascinated by the topic, mainly because I’ve been getting the impression lately that the things we as writers love to do the most – write books, feature stories, creative non-fiction – are the least lucrative sources of income within the writing world. Ironically, these are the kinds of publications that others see as the most prestigious or accomplished. Sure, some writers “make it” and become celebrities of the bookworm variety. But, many writers, including myself,  sit at our computers, pounding the keyboard, not daring to even acknowledge the fact that what got us sitting there in the first place was some kind of “doe-eyed, idealistic vision,” to use Coady’s words.

Brown asked the founders of Eighteen Bridges why the heck they started up a magazine in this day and age. I tuned in quickly to this one, seeing as I had hopped on board with Highline Magazine back in February, a grassroots magazine that is still working with the biggest doe-eyes you have ever seen. Their response was similar to mine and to Flanagan’s: the whole project was an idea and the magazine the vehicle.

Basically, if we want to see our magazines embody the values we want to express and tell the stories that are worth telling, we cannot treat our new found, glossy papered friends as a business. Likewise, if we’re writing a book because we want to make money, we may as well go work at Walmart. It’s all about the vision and being ready to love what we do because the hope of making money or breaking even are potentially far off. However, not so far off that we won’t be able to enjoy some quality of life. That, and every one seems to romanticize the life of a writer – surely we have the best gig in the world? :)

This question of business versus vision/money-maker versus vehicle-for-ideas seemed to drive the whole discussion over the course of the evening at Communitea. There is always a question of money and there are certain sacrifices and efforts magazines have to put into at least covering their costs. Publishers have to sell books. But, a lack of finances doesn’t mean a lack of attention. albertaviews, which still isn’t breaking even despite it being in its 14th year, was granted the National Magazine Award for Canada’s Magazine of the Year back in 2009 (claps to them). Writers may make little money off a book, but may find rewards coming in other forms, such as speaking engagements or more book deals (yay for more blood, sweat and tears!) And some, maybe even I, will have a bestseller that helps them buy a new office chair.

No matter how you look at it, though, it’s a (potentially) tough life. Considering this, more and more I respect other writers for their tenacity and drive despite a seemingly unfair return on their investment. Their relationship with writing goes deep – deeper than anyone outside of that relationship can understand. They, we, pour heart and soul into the written word, driven by some inner desire to express ourselves. This is what makes us writers. It can’t be about the money. Is that a risk I’m willing to take?

Yes. I might be the very definition of that doe-eyed visionary. And I’ve got big brown eyes to prove it.

What are you writing for?

Photo by Paul Zizka Photography.