Dive 4: The Art of Receiving Feedback… Secrets from a Published Author
Hey, it’s Alvin!
I wrote a book (The Vanity Trap), I write documentation as a software developer every day, and now I’m writing this newsletter. But the only way I can improve my writing is with feedback from others. Today, I want to share with you a valuable lesson I learned from years of getting feedback that few others talk about:
Getting feedback isn’t enough.
In the best case, you learn nothing. In the worst case, your skills decline. Properly processing feedback is how you get the most from it. Today, we’ll dive Below the Surface of receiving feedback. I’ll show you how I process feedback to improve the writing in these newsletters you’re reading. You don’t have to be a writer because the underlying concepts are valuable to any creator getting feedback. When I say “feedback,” I mean any information that can help you improve yourself or something you made.
My friend, Dmytro Krasun, recently tweeted about what happens when we don’t use feedback properly:
The problem with Waze, Grammarly, and other AI assistants is that I become stupid slowly and can’t live without them:
- 2 streets away from home, and I am lost;
- my English grammar and punctuation suck as never before.
Please, don’t ask why I am afraid to use GitHub Copilot.
He’s right. If you use technology to replace a skill, then you no longer have to practice the skill. Then, your skill level will deplete. If you don’t use it, you lose it. But you can also use technology to develop your skills.
Feedback works similarly.
If you just accept all feedback blindly, you won’t learn anything. Because you’re outsourcing all your editing to someone else. Outsourcing’s not a bad thing, per se, but your editing skills will decline because your editing skills are being replaced. If you want to develop your editing skills, you have to make editing decisions.
This brings me to writing tools like Grammarly and ProWritingAid (PWA). These are “AI writing assistants” that give feedback on your writing. In fact, I started using PWA earlier this year, and I use it for every newsletter I write. PWA isn’t sponsoring me. I’m just using it to show you how I process feedback.
Whenever I get feedback, there are four questions I seek to answer:
Why is the feedback important?
What solution(s) resolve the feedback?
What are the pros and cons of the solution(s)?
Should I accept, adapt, or abstain from applying the feedback?
For instance, when I’m given writing feedback, I have to understand why it’s important. When I’m asked to rephrase a sentence, I need to understand why the original sentence is supposedly lacking. Writing software, like PWA, gives me that explanation. If a person is giving me feedback, and it’s not clear why the feedback is important, I’ll ask them. Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, I can’t understand the explanation. This is when a sample solution can help.
Assistance software will often give you one (or more) solution to resolve the feedback. For example, if a sentence needs rephrasing in my writing, PWA will suggest at least one alternative. People don’t always offer solutions when giving feedback. In that case, I’ll either ask them how they’d address the issue, or suggest a solution and ask them what they think about it. Sometimes I won’t get a suggestion. In that case, I’ll go with what I think is best based on my understanding of the feedback.
Then, I weigh my options, which include “do nothing.” Doing nothing is always an option. For instance, with writing feedback, sticking to the original sentence I wrote is an option. This step doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s not like I draw decision trees and do the math for every comment I get. When writing, I think about clarity, flow, rhythm, pacing, emotional impact, among other factors. I think about how I can convey my message as best I can in my voice. So, I weigh how well each option meets all my goals and go with the best one.
Finally, I decide whether to accept, adapt, or abstain from applying the suggestion.
Accept means I adopt the suggestion in full, as-is.
Adapt means I change the suggestion before applying it, so it fits my goals better.
Abstain means I understand why the feedback is important but won’t change what I did because I determined that what I had fit my goals best.
Let’s look at some examples of how I processed feedback for my newsletter.
Example 1: Accept
So, I wrote the question: “Should I accept, adapt or abstain from applying the feedback?”
PWA noted a missing comma after the word “adapt.” It explained the comma is missing before a coordinating conjunction when a dependent clause follows an independent clause.
Its suggestion was to add the missing comma.
I wasn’t sure what a “coordinating conjunction” was, so I looked it up. Basically, a comma is needed to separate two different ideas in the same sentence.
What’s interesting about this explanation is that it’s not a problem in this sentence. It’s a false alarm by PWA. The only reason I know this is because I dove deeper. I learned why PWA deems this to be important. Having learned this lesson, I should never see this warning again… ideally.
But I am separating a list of items with commas, and I am missing an Oxford comma in the same place. Here, it’s optional. Its presence doesn’t make the sentence clearer. But I ended up accepting the suggestion (for this completely different reason) because it’s more my style.
Example 2: Adapt
Here, I wrote, “You have to process the feedback properly to get value from it.”
PWA said I could enhance readability by just saying, “Process the feedback properly to get value from it.”
I understand it’s saying that using fewer words makes the sentence more readable.
But PWA isn’t smart enough to get the tone and message I’m trying to convey. Its suggestion would be too forceful in context. It would also disrupt the flow from the previous sentence to the next.
But point taken. I could convey my message clearer in fewer words, where possible. So, I reworded it the way I thought best. I took PWA’s suggestion and adapted it to:
“Properly processing feedback is how you get the most from it.”
Example 3: Abstain
This is a suggestion I get every edition.
PWA notes possible unnecessary capitalization because I like to capitalize “Below the Surface” to match the name of my newsletter.
I know it’s probably grammatically wrong, but I do it as an intentional stylistic choice. So, I abstained from applying the suggestion.
Feedback from People
People can give more nuanced feedback that AI writing assistants can’t. And it makes collaborating with others more fun and interesting because other people can get you thinking outside the box. Here’s some feedback fellow writer Sam gave me on Dive 2:
In that edition, I listed a bunch of things I liked about my dream company. Sam felt my list was too long. Keeping lists short is generally good advice for getting to the point faster. I appreciated that because I understood what he meant. It’s something for me to keep in mind for upcoming editions.
But I abstained from applying his suggestion. As I explained, the list was intentionally long because I felt the length helped convey how perfect my dream company was in all ways, big and small.
Newsletter pro Louie gave me feedback on the third edition:
In Dive 3, I thought of adding one more example to help clarify my message. But, at least for Louie, the example didn’t do the one thing it should do. So, I applied his suggestion to keep the newsletter shorter and simpler.
Remember: feedback is only valuable if you make sense of it. If you blindly apply feedback without thinking, you won’t grow. In fact, your skills will decline. Understand why the feedback you’re getting is important, weigh your options, and either accept, adapt, or abstain.
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface of feedback. Reply to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or comments. Let me know how you handle feedback. I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you for reading. Have a wonderful day. And I’ll see you in the next one.