Be Specific when Asking for Feedback

6 minutes, 5 links


Updated November 3, 2022

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When author Derek Sivers wrote every day for a month, he realized that there wasn’t enough time to take his writing to the standard he preferred and that he was emailing this subpar writing to tens of thousands of readers. He found it taxing to write something to his own standard every day, and he worried that he was emailing his audience too frequently. He stopped publishing every piece he wrote, only to release it publicly when ready.

You don’t need to release your work to everyone for it to be complete. Sometimes, you might realize that a version of it is complete—but you’re dissatisfied with it, or you want a second or third perspective on it. In situations like that, you can release it to a small group of friends or peers to get their feedback.

Asking for feedback on creative work is an incredibly difficult task. For starters, your family and friends will have an instinct to protect your feelings. Most acquaintances or strangers won’t know you well enough to share. And how do you know what, and whom, to trust?

The first step is to clarify your intention when asking for feedback. You decide how to ask, whom to ask, and how you know whom to ask, when you decide what you’re interested in finding out. Some starting points:

  • Are you looking to nurture your idea, still fragile and in its infancy? You might be looking for generative feedback and validation, someone with an opinion that could expand your vision for the idea, and to give you energy to run with it. In this case, a supportive friend or a coach might be the best person to ask.

  • Are you looking to refine your work? Peer feedback from someone else in a similar stage to your creative journey, familiar with your craft, who can make educated suggestions and ask the right questions might be your best bet. Ask them to focus on a specific part of your work, and come prepared with specific questions for them.

  • Are you preparing to submit your work somewhere, or to release it to the world? You might be looking for a candid and critical opinion from a potential stakeholder, tapping into someone else’s inner judge and asking at least one question you’re terrified to ask.

  • Are you looking to promote your work? You might be looking less for feedback, and more commitment from an influential figure. It would be wise to make sure you’ve supported and promoted their work before you ask them for a favor. (Check out Groove founder Alex Turnbull’s very comprehensive post on the topic.)

  • Want to know how a group responds to your work, what conversations they have with each other in response? You might be interested in throwing a feedback party, sharing your idea with as many people as possible and getting their quick impression of whether or not something resonates.

The next step is to actually identify the person. You may or may not know them. If you don’t, then it would make sense to at least reach out first, probably to introduce yourself, before you ask them to give you some of their time to provide feedback.

The third step is to ask. My personal preferred way of doing this is simply to catch up and reconnect with a friend that I’m comfortable with—who I’ve talked with about my writing before and who has shown both emotional and promotional (and even financial!) support of my work—and then to mention what I’m working on. I watch their body language and listen to the questions they ask. If they seem curious about the work, I’ll probably ask, “Hey, can I run something by you?”

When you ask for feedback, you may think you’re asking for a favor. Okay, let’s be honest, you definitely are asking for a favor. Still, that favor may be exactly what the other person is looking for. As author and entrepreneur Derek Sivers writes in Your Music, Your People, “You might be the coolest thing that ever happened to a teenager going through an unpopular phase. You might help someone start a new life after a break-up. You can provide some exciting variety to their boring routines.” Thank you, and you’re welcome.

Maybe you’re an artist who recently reconnected with a friend who studied art history and is working an unrelated full-time job. Or maybe you’re a novelist who just found out your friend has made a new year’s resolution to start reading more fiction this year.

While I’ve provided just a handful of starting points for asking for feedback, you can get super creative with how you receive it. For example, when Carly Rae Jepsen wrote 200 songs for her albums Emotion and Dedicated, she invited family and friends over for a listening party. She describes the process, “We have these listening parties at my house where I feed everyone and give them copious amounts of wine hoping that they’ll have opinions about the music. And then they all send in their votes to me, including my bandmates, my manager, and girlfriend Alex—she sends me notes in the night. There starts to be at least six to eight common songs that are all resonating with people. Then I pick the rest myself from my favorites and fill in the blanks of what’s missing from the album.”

Release in a Lab

Typically, creative work takes place in what psychologist Fabra Robin Hogarth calls a “wicked learning environment.” These are environments that involve many variables, which make correlations and causations difficult to form. Predictions are very difficult to clearly make.

In this case, you want to release your work in a kind, closed, learning environment. This prompt calls for you to show your work to 10 different people. Ask 10 of them the same questions, and you’ll start to see patterns. If you’re uncertain of which questions to ask, try this ABCD framework from novelist Mary Robinette Kowal:*

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