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  • Writer's pictureAaron Arm

The Right Way to Ask for Feedback

Updated: Jan 31

...because asking "Is this good?" isn't good.

If you want good answers, you need to ask good questions.
 

Note: After writing this, I realized I took a while to get to that actual, actionable point here. If you don't want to hear me wax poetic on an analogy, skip to "Please don't do this!"

 

During my time as a teacher, I witnessed an interesting pattern among students who were able and willing to ask questions.


Like many teachers, when I sensed even the slightest hint of confusion in my students, I made a habit of asking, "What questions do you have?" Now, it probably doesn't come as a surprise that most students didn't ask questions, even when prompted--ever. However, I don't believe this was due to shyness, boredom, disengagement, or anything of that sort. Rather, I believe that most students legitimately didn't have any questions... or, to be more precise, they couldn't think of any questions to ask. When students did ask clarifying questions with any regularity, those questions were pertinent and absolutely helpful for their understanding. But that's not all these students shared. When it came to which students were most likely to ask relevant questions, I noticed a trend: they were proficient in the content without having yet mastered it. In other words, they mostly knew what they were doing, but struggled slightly with an occasional concept.


In pedagogy, this is called the zone of proximal development (ZPD). It's a place where the content is accessible to a learner, but it's still challenging enough that they'll struggle a bit to internalize new concepts. They might be able to get there on their own, but with a little guidance they can thrive. This is where everyone should ideally be on a journey of improvement: remaining challenged while still having attainable goals.


But what about the majority of students who weren't in that ZPD? The students for whom the content was too easy, who intrinsically understood all relevant concepts, didn't have any questions to ask. They legitimately didn't need to ask anything, because there was nothing new for them to learn at that juncture. Meanwhile, for those who were struggling significantly, they didn't understand enough of the content to even know what questions to ask. It's a sad irony that those who need the most help to learn are unable to utilize the most essential tool for learning: targeted questioning.

It's a sad irony that those who need the most help to learn are unable to utilize the most essential tool for learning: targeted questioning.

When it comes to writing, feedback is like a student-teacher relationship**. If you want to improve, you should seek out remediation from someone whom you trust to guide you in the right direction. However, writing is no simple task. It's not only a matter of grammar, structure, clarity, punctuation, organization, idea development, or any singular facet; it's a complex marriage among all of those, which writers must implement simultaneously. This is why no one is simply taught to write, but rather we are taught each of those skills at different points over time. It would be overwhelming to focus on every potential facet of writing in a single lesson, for teachers and learners alike. Questions about writing are therefore no different. They need to be specific to a skill, and you need to understand what skill you're looking to improve. And since asking for feedback is just another form of questioning, you need to know what type of feedback you want.


Please don't do this!

With this in mind, allow me to share the bane of every feedback provider:


  • Is this good?

  • Do you like it?

  • Just any general feedback, please.

  • What should I change?

  • Is it okay?

If this is what you're asking, then you might as well not ask anything at all. This might sound harsh, but it's true: these requests are meaningless because they have no focus, and if you're not asking for focused feedback, then you're asking your reader to consider (and evaluate) every potential aspect of your writing. That's overwhelming. Worse yet, you're essentially rolling the dice on your feedback, because your reader might prioritize anything. You won't know until you receive the feedback, at which point it's too late to ask the reader to reconsider how they're reading (at least, if you want to be polite).

...if you're not asking for focused feedback, then you're asking your reader to consider (and evaluate) every potential aspect of your writing. That's overwhelming.

Do this!

So, how do you ask for focused feedback? It's simple: think of yourself as that student who mostly understands the content, but might not be totally confident in a certain aspect of it. Hopefully, you do understand most of your own writing. But maybe something feels a little unpolished. Maybe you're worried about the pacing, characterization, dialogue, or something simple like overusing em dashes. This is what feedback is for. Ask your readers to pay attention to those specific points that you're worried about.


If you don't know what to ask--either because nothing feels problematic or everything does--then you're probably not ready for feedback. You need to understand your own writing well enough to know how it can potentially be improved. To bring this back to the ZPD, consider how confident you are with your work:


  • If you're overwhelmed with potential improvements to the point where you want your reader to focus on everything (or, worse yet, you're hoping they'll fix it for you), then you might be struggling with too much to see one clear path for improvement. Either revise that draft or shift to a different project that's more manageable. Or, if you really want to capitalize on a learning opportunity, pick one or two facets of writing for your reader to respond to, regardless of anything else they see. This at least gives you a skill to identify and work on, going forward.

  • If you think you have a polished story without any room for improvement... well, what are you seeking feedback for? Seriously, if you just want compliments, then you might as well start looking to publish. On the other hand, if you're both confident in your work and humbly looking to improve it further, then think big. Ask readers to evaluate your pacing, plot arc, character dynamics, etc. Even if you love what you have, choose something for others to critically evaluate.

  • If you're mostly happy with your story, but can see certain aspects of it that might not be totally effective, then you're in the ZPD. You're ready to ask those focused questions and learn from the focused feedback you receive.

Of course, all of this hinges upon the feedback being valuable. That means having a reader whose judgment you trust and who understands the craft well enough themselves to offer feedback that's insightful, relevant, and actionable. But that's a topic for another day.

Happy writing!

 

**The goal of a feedback provider is, of course, to help you improve. In this way, we can think of them as having a similar role to a teacher or mentor. However, the power dynamics between a writer and a critical reader shouldn't be so firmly ingrained. Feedback is always a suggestion to be accepted or rejected, and neither party's ego should be tied to this fact. Maintain a growth mindset and embrace criticism, but also acknowledge that no feedback--not even from a seasoned writer--is sacrosanct.

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