Giving and Getting
The subtle art of writing feedback
I published an early version of this on last year as “Giving and Getting Feedback on Substack.” For me, this essay reflects my fascination with reciprocity: with how we share ourselves with others in ways that improve our mutual lives.
Sometime last year,put a note at the bottom of his latest story on . It read:
(Please, if at any point you notice a flaw in the story, let me know.)
Wow, I thought, what a simple and direct way to ask for feedback!
So I offered my observations via email. Kris accepted my criticism with the same easy, humble grace he had used to request feedback.
What an easy and beautiful exchange! It remains for me a great example of what writers and their readers can get from each other, and I’d like to dig a little deeper into this type of interaction to see how we can get better at it.
The “we” in that previous sentence is critical, because feedback is a two-way street: it requires both giving and getting. I’m no expert: I can be heavy-handed when giving feedback, and stubborn and prickly when receiving it1. But I want to get better, and that’s the impulse I’ll use to explore some of the assumptions and principles that guide my own feedback practice.
Giving Feedback: The Reader’s Perspective
I learn as much from the feedback I give as I do from the feedback I get. When I pay close attention to someone else’s writing, it just feels like I’m building up my writing muscles. Here are some of the principles that guide the ways I give feedback2.
Assess whether feedback is welcome.
You may assume that the mere act of publishing on Substack is a request for feedback (it is for me!), but I don’t think this is true. For some writers, publishing is an agonizing (if needed) act of revelation and the thought of getting criticism is mortifying. (Listen to The Active Voice podcast episode withto hear her take on this one. Well, and because it’s awesome. It’s on .)
I believe most writers communicate their intent about wanting feedback, some explicitly, some implicitly. If they haven’t openly asked for feedback, I send a direct email that simply asks whether they’d be open to feedback (I call this the “backchannel,” and it’s where a lot of feedback happens.) Some rough-and-tumble writers likesavor direct input; others appear to shrink from it. I’ll just say that I never post critical feedback directly in comments unless I have established a high-trust relationship with the author. (By the way, for this post and all my posts, I welcome all comments3.)
Give the feedback you want to get.
In other words, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. A few examples:
Share what you like about what they’ve done well
Disclose where you do not understand
Be specific and detailed
There’s a world of good writing about this topic.’s “Notes on Giving Criticism” is worth checking out, and explores this very well in his .
Offer observations, not judgments.
Your job as a commenter is not to judge the writer’s intention or to label something “good” or “bad.” It is to observe how you felt and thought and reacted when you read their writing—how you experienced the writing. Own your feelings and observations, and don’t assume you know the writer’s intent. (And consider the writer’s feelings. “Yuck,” I have been reminded, is not a very helpful reaction.) This kind of feedback lets the writer know whether what they intended to convey was what the reader actually received.
Don’t tell the writer what to do; tell them what you see (and don’t see).
As a reader, you are in a unique position when you make comments: you have a view of the writing that the author simply cannot possess. The author has already thought a lot about the writing, and they’ve likely considered and discarded multiple options along the way to what you see on the page. But you are seeing it fresh, whole, complete, and you can offer the writer your perspective on their work. Your feelings are valid (even if they are not necessarily something that the writer can use.) So report what you see and what you don’t see. The writer gets to decide what to do with it.
Give feedback to the right people.
You don’t owe everyone you read a comment. It’s perfectly okay to just ❤️ something if you like it, or not comment at all (hell, it’s okay to unsubscribe). But there will be writers who strike a note with you, who seem to be describing the world as you see it or want to see it, who may be writing in a style that intrigues you, and I’d argue they’re the ones you should interact with … because both of you will benefit. If someone whose writing resonates with you gets THIS close to really nailing something, but just misses, your observations about why could be really helpful.
Check out Sarah Fay’s piece on how people interact with writers on Substack for more on this:
When all is said and done, writers … oh hell, people … are vulnerable: they have bared their soul, or some part of it, for you to judge. So have empathy. Try to put yourself in their shoes, to imagine the problem they were trying to solve by writing their piece this way. No one knows it more than us writers: writing is hard. So above all else, when giving comments and in life in general, be kind.
Getting Feedback: The Writer’s Perspective
Getting feedback isn’t always easy, but it’s (almost) always helpful. To prepare myself for feedback, I like to remind myself:
I want to improve.
The wonderful and daunting truth about writing, of all sorts, is that one can always ... ALWAYS ... improve. I remind myself that no matter how hard I worked on something, it can always be better.
I want to connect.
I’ve heard people say, “I only write for myself, I don’t care what others think.” Hell, I think I’ve said this myself. But I don’t believe it. Most of us freely acknowledge that writing is a means of connecting with the world and the other people in it. I don’t expect to connect with everyone, but I do want to reach people who appreciate my voice, share some of my ways of looking at the world, or have similar experiences (or maybe radically different experiences that lead to similar conclusions). I also want to connect with people who see the world very differently but are open to an exchange about those differences. Some of my most fruitful exchanges are with people who think very differently than me.
I only improve with feedback.
The only way I can improve my writing is by understanding where it falls short—where it fails to delight or persuade or anger or move. It’s true that I can build that understanding through careful revision, or with a good editor, and I do both. But I learn so much from listening to anyone who reads my work and cares to reply.
Feedback tells me where I have hit the target and where I’ve missed. It reveals what is clear and what is cloudy. Sure, some feedback is better than others, and some can be dismissed, but the more feedback I get, the better I understand my efforts to communicate.
I need to invite feedback.
I believe we need to explicitly let our readers know if we are open to feedback. Not just by dropping a Comment button in the middle of the story or encouraging likes, but by consciously stating that we are open to learning and that we want to hear if our writing isn’t hitting the mark. That’s what Kris Mole did and it worked.
I get to decide what to do with feedback.
You’ll notice I’ve said nothing about what I do with feedback! That’s because it’s up to me, the writer, to decide. If I get good feedback, I use it. I’d be a fool not to. But if the feedback doesn’t work for me, if it distracts from my intention or undermines my vision, I discard it. There’s only one name on the masthead or on the book cover, and that’s mine. Or yours. The writer’s the boss!
My own reading and writing practice has benefited greatly from my interactions with the following writers, some of whom I now consider friends.
My most fruitful (if sometimes difficult) feedback relationship is with a writer who is least like me. We’ve had to work so hard at learning to listen to each other that we’ve considered writing a piece about that—we just can’t agree on the format! (Meg also created the nice bird graphic at top.)
And in case I haven’t made it absolutely clear, your feedback is welcome!
I sometimes joke that if you don’t think your reviewer is an asshole and an idiot when you first read their feedback, one of you has done something wrong.
Perhaps I should say that I strive to let these principles guide my feedback. I do not always succeed!
And I’ve only blocked one complete idiot, who shall remain nameless.