Virtual Feedback

In my last post, I mentioned a feedback exercise that I developed a few years ago. In this post, I want to put a twist on it that leverages the online meeting technologies that are becoming so familiar to us these days. I hope this is one of the better uses we can put things like Teams, Zoom, Hangouts, Skype and even FaceTime to. And I promise it won’t take long; in fact, if it takes a long time you’re not doing what I’m suggesting.

This is an exercise for two people: a writer and a reader. Other than the writing that the writer is presumably doing anyway, the exercise requires only 3, 6, or 9 minutes of joint attention, plus a one minute break at the end. It can be done as often as you like, but I don’t recommend doing very many of them on a given day. Doing one as a reader and one as a writer in a day is entirely sufficient, and much more than that will get tiresome.

The writer will have written a paragraph in a deliberate way. They will have chosen a key sentence the day before, and they’ll have written the paragraph in an 18- or 27-minute writing moment. The result of this work provides all the material we need for the exercise. The writer will send the paragraph by email or text message to the reader. It does not have to be editable, but it should be legible. Send it in a form that is easy on the eyes — a good font, good line spacing, and no right-justification. It can be a PDF or even a screenshot. Just so long as its easy to read on the reader’s screen. There should be no headings or other information on the page, just the paragraph as it might appear in a final text.

Now establish a video link using Teams, Zoom, Hangouts, Skype or FaceTime — whatever you would normally use. You’ll need both audio and video. The reader acknowledges receipt of the paragraph. The writer now turns off their own camera and mutes their mic. That’s the signal for the reader to begin. Set a timer for 3, 6, or 9 minutes. (More on that at the end.)

First, the reader reads the paragraph out loud to the writer. The reader can’t see the writer’s face or hear their voice. But the writer is watching the reader’s facial expression and listening to how their own words sound when someone who didn’t write them reads them. Do they come easily off the page with an intonation that suggests understanding? Do they brings smiles or frowns where they should? Is the tone and expression appropriate to the writer’s intention?

Since the writer’s mic is muted and their camera is off, the reader has no way of knowing how the author feels about the reading. As in “real life” (when we’re reading anything else), we have only the words on the page to guide us. We’re alone, as readers, with the text. The writer can’t help us make sense of what it means. The writer’s work ended with the writing; if anything is missing, it’s too late to fix it now. That’s why this exercise is so useful to writer.

After about one minute of reading out loud, the reader answers two simple questions. (1) What is the key sentence? (2) Does the paragraph provide support, elaboration, or defense? (Or does it address “the fourth difficulty”?)

With a well-written paragraph, this should not be especially difficult. Both the meaning and the rhetorical posture of the paragraph should be obvious. So if it does take the reader a long time to locate the key sentence and decide what difficulty the paragraph is trying to overcome, then this is an implicit criticism that the writer needs to take on board. The reader is free to think out loud or just sit there scratching their head. Everything, including silence, is information in this exercise.

Having decided on the meaning and posture of the paragraph, the reader is now free to air any thoughts at all until the timer runs out. (Or just sit there in stunned silence.) There’s usually three to six minutes left to work with here, and the reader can talk about the substance or the style, the argument or the grammar, the similes or the spelling. Everything is fair game as long as it’s the honest, spontaneous reaction of the reader to the text. The reader may have found the rhetorical figures of the paragraph brilliant or confusing, or may have found the ideas illuminating or obscure. The reader may have been reminded of everything they, too, know about the subject, or the paragraph may have raised questions they hadn’t considered before. Like I say, everything is on the table. And nothing. If the reader can think of nothing to say, remember that that is information too.

Until the timer runs out. Then stop. The writer now turns the microphone and camera back on and says a simple, “Thank you.” Let another minute or so pass in silence. Look at each other’s faces. Then say a polite, “Good bye,” and hang up. That’s it.

I’ll say a bit more about this on Friday. But I want to leave it as description without explanation for now. (I’m happy to hear in the comments what you think so far.) Much of the value of the exercise — the amount of information the writer receives by this means — should be obvious.

Let me end by explaining the timing. Set the timer for 9 minutes if the paragraph was written under normal circumstances, i.e., produced as part of an orderly “re-engineered” writing process. But sometimes you’ll want to do this exercise to try out a particular idea or just for fun. Then write a fresh paragraph for 18 minutes (doing all the same things you normally would, just a little faster) and give your reader only 6 minutes to respond. Finally, you might want to do this exercise right now for some reason (maybe as an in-class demonstration or because the thought strikes you). In that case, you can just find an old paragraph you’ve written and give yourself 9 minutes to edit it, deliberately focusing its key sentence and adjusting its posture. Then give your reader only 3 minutes to read and react. There’s some math to those numbers but no magic. You are spending exactly one third of the time “reading” as you did writing for the exercise.

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