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The Feedback Behind the Feedback

Feedback is an integral part of any big project. Ideally, we solicit feedback from functional experts, neutrally review their notes, and integrate their applicable suggestions. In practice, however, we often solicit feedback from our friends, review their notes somewhat defensively, and search in vain for usable insights.

Feedback is always helpful, but it’s not always helpful in the ways we expect. Though we typically use feedback as a tool for finding solutions to our project’s problems, it’s a lot more effective (and more reliable) to use feedback as a tool for verifying our project’s problems (and determining which require our attention). 

We do this by looking for the feedback behind the feedback. Readers’ suggestions are often motivated by the emotional friction they experienced when encountering our project. When we look in the background, to the feedback behind their feedback, we can identify this friction and deduce the problems that generated it.

Let’s take a comparative look. Here, a list of solutions from a reader of a working draft:

  • Take out chapter 3–it doesn’t really seem to fit.
  • Chapters 8 and 9 are long and repetitive–join them together in a shorter chapter.
  • Some of the chapters start with stories and others don’t–start them all the same.
  • There are so many citations that I’m not sure what’s yours and what’s not.
  • The story in the conclusion is really interesting–move it to earlier in the book.
  • The same examples are used too much–mix it up more. 

These might be helpful, but they might be arbitrary. Is deleting chapter 3 a good solution? It’s hard to say when we haven’t identified the problem beyond “fit.”

If we look behind the feedback, though, we find more generative feelings:

  • I’m confused, and I don’t know exactly why. Maybe chapter 3 is confusing me, or maybe it’s another chapter.
  • I’m confused. Maybe it’s because some chapters have different forms than others.
  • I’m confused. Maybe it’s because there are a lot of interruptions in the sentences. 
  • I’m having a hard time following this argument. I’m confused
  • I’m not interested in this argument until it’s too late.
  • If I’m totally honest, I find this a little boring.

What’s the friction motivating our reader? Confusion: They can’t find the argument’s throughline. They don’t find the argument interesting. They may not find the argument relevant.

The feedback behind the feedback can feel harsh (which is one reason readers don’t offer it, and one reason writers don’t seek it out), but it very often points the way to the underlying issues keeping our project from completion. Sometimes, the most useful solutions are in there, but in the background. We need to look behind the feedback behind to find them.