Giving Thoughtful Feedback, or The Challenge of Being a Reader
Ashly Bender, Assistant Director
Last week, our director Bronwyn Williams wrote about the anxiety many writers feel when they share their work with others. In the Writing Center, consultants often hear about those anxieties. Part of our work is to help writers develop the confidence and positive self-perception that lessens those anxieties. Reading Bronwyn’s post made me think, though, about the other side of the situation: the pressure a reader can feel to offer insightful and productive feedback.
Bronwyn mentioned that he was nervous to send his post to his assistant director, me. I was just as anxious to offer him feedback and suggestions. I mean, he is the director (both of the Writing Center and of my dissertation), and he has been writing successfully for years. While my nervousness is informed somewhat by those facts, it is more so the result of my belief that giving thoughtful feedback is a demonstration of respect—for the writer, the text, and the relationship between the writer and the reviewer.
As Bronwyn explained, writers often feel as though their work is a part of themselves. This is important for readers to remember because their feedback has the potential to shape the writer’s perception of his work and his self. Many of us are familiar with the overly critical grader that has marked up our writing to the point where we wonder why we bothered. This is one of the many places those writing anxieties come from. But many of us are also familiar with the feeling we get when a reader says, “This is good” or even “great” but doesn’t give any examples or mark any places on the text. It gives the feeling that the reader didn’t even bother to really read it. In this case, we may be left wondering, “How do you know? Did you even read it?”
This is why thoughtful feedback that is supported by examples from the piece is so important. It sends the message that the writing is important and valuable; it is worth the time of everyone involved in the creation of that piece. As a reader, I’m trying to discover the main goals of a piece of writing and how the content in the version I’m reading is supporting those goals. I consider as I’m reading what could be elaborated on or what might be missing in the writer’s effort to achieve those goals. Also, I want to be sure that I’m considering the writer’s anxieties—if the writer is unhappy with his piece, why might he be feeling that way? Sometimes those nervous feelings originate outside of the text, but sometimes a writer knows something isn’t quite working in the current draft but can’t identify or articulate the problem. I want to help the writer identify those places so he can revise them for the next draft.
It is my hope as a reader that these kinds of responses communicate to the writer that I appreciate the leap of faith he has taken in letting me read his work and that I take his work seriously. That can be a tall order for a reader sometimes, but it is the challenge that writing center consultants rise to every day they walk into work. As nervous as it may make us some days, those of us at the University Writing Center find it exciting and inspiring to be included in the crafting process of so many writers’ work, which some of our tutors have already discussed in previous posts.
While writing center consultants are always aiming for thoughtful feedback, it can sometimes be difficult to do in the 50 minute sessions we offer, especially with longer texts. There are some things clients can do to help consultants give that thoughtful feedback. The main thing is helping us become more familiar with their writing. Some ways to do this are to help us understand the context for the writing (the assignment, the class, etc), to tell us their goals for the piece, and to share their concerns. Also, we cannot stress enough the value of visiting the Writing Center multiple times. By doing this, as Brit Mandelo has discussed before, the client can find a consultant that he works best with, and they can develop a relationship that allows more time to focus on the writing in each session.
Ultimately, Bronwyn’s post and the process of giving him feedback made me think about the collaborative process between writers and readers. Often readers are anxious like the writer, even if those feelings develop for different reasons. In some ways, that anxiety is productive because it encourages the reader to be more invested and encourages the writer to be more open. Together these perspectives lead to better writing and better individual pieces.