Inspired by Bill Evans, I recently came up with a pretty good metaphor for receiving feedback. Imagine that you are a piano student and your teacher asks you to “play something” for her. You play and afterwards she tells you that she likes the melancholy way you played “How About You?” (“I like New York in June…”)
Now, imagine that you weren’t trying to play “How About You?” but were just improvising whatever came to mind, and you didn’t have any particular mood in mind. Your teacher’s feedback wouldn’t mean very much. But suppose, instead, that you were trying to play “How About You?” in a lighthearted way. Now you’re getting some real information from your teacher. She’s telling you that you have something to work on. You are not getting your musical idea across in your playing.
The same goes for getting feedback on a paragraph you’ve written. If your only goal was to fill half a page with words then you’re not going to learn very much about how well you write from your reader’s interpretation. But if you decided on a simple, declarative key sentence the day before, and you spent exactly 27 minutes supporting, elaborating or defending it, then you can ask your reader to identify the key sentence and the rhetorical posture. If they get it right, you’re doing something right. If they get it wrong you can try to figure out what went wrong. The key sentence here is a bit like the melody — what are you trying to say? The rhetorical posture (support, elaborate or defend) is a bit like the mood — how are you trying to say it? They specify your intentions.
That’s the important thing. If you want to learn something from the feedback you are getting, you have to be doing something specific. You have to have an intention. When your reader tells you how they interpret your words, there has to be a “right answer” to compare that interpretation to.