A piece of writing is meant as an experience: a reading experience. The writer arranges a string of words with the goal of occasioning a series of thoughts or feelings, or simply images, in the mind of the reader. The writing succeeds if it occasions the right thoughts, feelings or images, and fails if the wrong ones, or none at all, come to mind as the reader reads the text. Notice that the writer does not succeed just because the reader likes the writing. That’s all well and good, but the writer was trying to get a particular idea across to the reader and will not be satisfied merely with praise. Nor is criticism necessarily a bad thing. As long as the reader “gets” the meaning that the writer intended, the writer will be satisfied at the level of writing. Of course, the writer may have ambitions and vanities that lie beyond the writing. But a writer who is praised without being understood should feel a little uneasy about the situation. Likewise, if you are vilified for the views you are actually trying to express, you can rightly take some pride in your work. Your reader may be altogether right that you should be ashamed of yourself. But your writing seems to be working.
But how can you know how well your writing works? The standard solution for most people is to ask someone for their opinion. They give them a text they’ve been working on for weeks or months and anxiously await the reader’s judgment. The reader, in turn, tries to be both “constructive” and “critical”, looking for strengths to praise and weaknesses to improve. They will also, usually, end up saying something about the ideas being expressed, and even, whether deliberately or inadvertently, about the intelligence or character of the writer. “This is really interesting stuff,” “there’s a lot going on here,” and “maybe you’ve got too much say,” are almost stock responses these days in academic feedback. “I really like this part…but I’m a bit unclear about…” is common fare. Importantly, the writer has spent uncountable hours on the text by now and the reader has probably spent a few hours more reading and making notes. They’re now spending time (sometimes another hour or two) talking about the text, and when it’s over there’s an enormous amount of information, allusion, and insinuation for the writer to “process”. What, at the end of the day, did the reader think? Did the text work? Sometimes there are more questions than answers.
As an alternative (or at least as a supplement) to this sort of feedback, I’ve long defended a more direct approach. It has the added benefit of laying claim to less than one hour of the writer’s and reader’s combined time. It is an utterly unsentimental form of feedback, which, once you get used to it, should occasion no anxiety at all, while giving you an information-rich experience you can use to improve your writing in countless ways.
You begin by preparing a single paragraph for feedback during a deliberately planned writing moment: the day before, you decide what you want to say (what the key sentence is) and the next day, at a predetermined time, you sit down to compose at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words that support, elaborate, or defend that claim. After 27 minutes, take a three-minute break, print it out, and go meet your reader. Your reader will have agreed to give you exactly 10 minutes of their time, no more and no less. They will have done no preparation (you did that by writing the paragraph) and there will no debriefing or social commitment afterwards. When the ten minutes are up, you each go back to your busy days. If you want to socialize, meet up after work or school and talk about unrelated things.
Here’s how those ten minutes will go. You, the writer, will say nothing at all. You will, as much as possible, not even communicate with nonverbal grunts, nods of the head, or facial gestures. You’ll sit silently and receive the gift of feedback, which is not a conversation. Start a 9-minute timer. First, the reader will read your paragraph out loud; second, the reader will tell you what they think your key sentence is; third, they’ll tell you whether you are trying to support, elaborate or defend it. (They are telling you what they think you’re trying to say and whether you think the reader is having a hard time believing, understanding or agreeing with you.) This may take no more than three minutes. But it may take longer as the reader tries to figure out what you mean or what you are trying to do. Don’t help. Let the reader struggle in their loneliness to make sense of your words.
It is a loneliness you now share and, as Virginia Woolf suggested, it is the truth of things. Let your reader sit in silence or puzzle out loud. All of this is information that you are receiving about your text. After the first three tasks are completed, you will continue to say nothing until the timer ends, listening to whatever the reader thinks to tell you. This could be about your language or your knowledge, your style or your ideas. The important thing is that it is the reader’s honest reaction to reading your paragraph. Here, too, silence is information, a gift. Receive it. Don’t break it.
When the timer rings, the reader must stop, mid-sentence if necessary. It is an effort to reflect and an effort to listen and you must keep your promise to each other that the exertions are over at an arbitrary point. You will now sit silently for a minute, thinking about what has happened with a look of profound gratitude on your face for the time your reader has just given you. They have shown you what it is like to read your text. You have shared the literary (not literal) loneliness that is the truth of things. They have let you into their experience of your text as a reader. This experience was not a judgment on you or even your text. It just was whatever it was, their honest attempt to think, feel, or see what you wanted them to.
The experience will be useful to you in so far as you were deliberate and honest about your intentions when you were writing. Notice that “What is the key sentence?” and “Am I supporting, elaborating, or defending it?” are questions that have right or wrong answers. Your idea either came across or it didn’t. Your posture was either appropriate or not. Make of your reader’s feedback what you will but do not take it as a judgment of any kind. You didn’t give your reader conditions under which a judgment could be seriously rendered. It would be unfair of you, ungrateful even, to take their reading as an assessement of either you mind or your words. But your reader did show you whether you have work to and what that work might involve. And you can give yourself any amount of moments to do it. But that is for tomorrow.