Feedback is Failing Forward

I wear a lot of hats. But, I spend most of my time writing. I research, read, synthesize, and write. I write grant proposals, papers, articles, books chapters, blog posts…and I wrote a book. Sometimes, I am even lucky enough to collect data, analyze it, and write about that too. I write, and then I write some more.

After I finish my first draft, do I send it to publication? Oh gosh no. I will probably go through several - possibly umpteen revisions - before I consider my first draft done. And at that point, it's still a draft. To make it better, I seek feedback.

If I am writing to an audience, I need to make sure my audience is going to understand what I am saying. So I send my draft to critical friends and colleagues, and I ask for feedback.

Then, I wait. On pins and needles, I anticipate their edits and comments. Once the document arrives in my inbox, I ready myself and I take a deep breath. As I slowly exhale, I work to convince myself that it's ok to receive feedback. Incorporating critical feedback can only make the document better and who doesn't want that? But seeing your draft all marked up with comments, questions, and tracked changes…can be really hard to handle.

Why is feedback so hard to accept?

Honestly, I blame my K-12 education. I think my generation was brainwashed into believing that our first effort is our only opportunity for success, and all those markings are nothing but bad news. As we learned in middle school and high school, too many red marks on your paper means you failed. And if you are trying to achieve A's and be the perfect student like I was trying to be, even a single red mark feels like failure.

Someone has judged your work, and they found fault. You did not succeed. You are not perfect. You failed. And the emotional hurt is real. How is that a productive learning environment?

If we are trying to help our students learn how to write, then a first draft is simply a draft. I would argue, it's not even worth grading. Just give feedback. First, knowing how to receive feedback is an utterly critical lesson in life, and it needs to start in K-12 education. As you can see, to this day, I still have a hard time receiving feedback on my writing. And I write…a lot. Second, knowing how to incorporate feedback is where the learning occurs. If the feedback says, "I don't understand this sentence" then you can go back to the drawing board, think about a better way to state your point, and try again.

Good writing doesn't happen on the first try. Not for professional writers. Not for students. A piece of writing needs to go through several phases of iteration. And each step of the way, there's some thing to be learned. A-ha! I was supposed to use a semi-colon not a comma. Oh right! It should be they're, not their. Whoa! The reader doesn't think I supported my point with enough evidence. Ok, I guess I should rewrite that paragraph.

Revisions are a part of the writing process. I know some teachers are starting to encourage writing revisions in their classes and I love that. Let's all make feedback and revisions part of the K-12 learning process--because receiving feedback shouldn't feel like flat-out failure, but rather, failing forward.