My Highly Mature and Very Professional Stages of Processing Feedback
Feedback. We all need it. But how do we handle it when we get it?
Over the course of my career, I have taken note of the various stages I go through while processing feedback. In the hope of making things easier for others, I will share those stages with you today.
(I am, of course, a Highly Mature and Very Professional Person. Bearing that in mind, please try not to let yourself be intimidated by how well I handle feedback.)
Stage 1.1: Eager Anticipation
Any day now, I get to find out what someone thinks about my writing!
Earlier on in my academic career, I used to wait for feedback. And it usually took awhile to reach me (humanities journals can be sloooooow). These days, I’m usually asking for feedback because I’ve learned that feedback makes my writing better. I seek it out, and I keep refreshing my email inbox until it arrives!
Stage 1.2: Anxious Anticipation
…Oh no…I’m gonna find out what someone thinks of my writing…!!!
The fact that I seek out feedback doesn’t mean I don’t worry that it might not be good. Every time I click *OPEN* on that email or that document, I hold my breath. In fact, when my brilliant PhD supervisor was recently kind enough to send me feedback on a project, I put off opening the email for a whole day so I could prepare myself emotionally. But please don’t tell her that.
Stage 2: Cautious Optimism
Okaaaaaay…so far so good…. They’re describing my piece and not saying horrible things (yet). Maybe this will be ok! Maybe my piece isn’t that bad!
If I’m receiving feedback on an article or book from anonymous readers, it usually starts off with a description of the piece under review. (This is also how I start off the feedback I give on everything I am asked to review anonymously.) This clarifies what has been understood (or misunderstood) in the reading of a piece of writing. And, when I see it in feedback on my writing, it also helps lower my heart rate before I get to the actual criticism.
Stage 3: Mild Indignation
What! They think something could be improved? I beg their pardon?!
Even when I’ve asked for feedback, some small part of me hopes that the response I’ll get will be something like, ‘It’s flawless, darling, don’t change a thing’. (FYI: I’m still waiting for that to happen.) And I don’t always agree with the feedback I get. So a little indignation is part of my processing process. But of course, I never let it get out of control. No sir. Not me.
Stage 4: Outrage (a.k.a. the ‘WTF’ Stage)
How dare they make such ridiculous suggestions! They are wrong, wrong, WRONG! Why do they not understand my genius?!? Fools!
Ok, I lied. There’s sometimes a LOT of indignation involved in the way I process feedback. Sometimes I think, How could they have misread what I wrote so badly? Or, Do they even know what that word means? And sometimes—sometimes—I’m right to think those things! When that happens to me, I
take a deep breath,
or go for a little walk,
or swear loudly in the privacy of my office.
But I try to keep reading through the feedback no matter what. I can always return to the outrageous criticism later.
There’s one thing I never do: I never take my feelings out on the editors or reviewers I’m working with, either verbally or via email. But I’ll save the matter of how to respond appropriately to Utterly Outrageous Feedback for another post!
Stage 5: Despair
They’re right! I’m totally hopeless at this! This thing is total crap, I can’t fix it, and I’ll never write anything good in my life! It’s all so…so…hopeless…! *sob*
More often than not, once I’ve finished reading a chunky piece of feedback, I have a moment or two (or three) when I doubt my ability to make my writing better. Or even to write anything halfway decent. Sharing my writing with others can make me feel incredibly, painfully vulnerable. Sometimes the criticism I get makes me doubt myself, even if I’ve published decent stuff before.
Stage 6: Llama Farmer
It’s ok. No, really. It’s fine. At least now I know the truth. And now that I know the truth, I can pursue my dream of being a llama farmer. I have no idea what llamas eat, but I’ll figure it out.
The moment is usually fleeting, but sometimes I start making plans to leave everything behind and start a new life elsewhere. Maybe somewhere with llamas.
Stage 7: Grudging Acceptance
I suppose they might have a point. Ok, fine, maybe that’s a good suggestion. I mean, they’re way off in lots of other ways, but those couple of points aren’t bad. Fine, fine, fine—I’ll make the stupid changes.
As you can see, it takes me several Highly Mature and Very Professional Stages to get to this one. But as long as I don’t get too carried away with planning a llama-filled future, I almost always get here eventually. Here are some of the things that help me reach the stage of grudging acceptance:
I read through feedback once, and then set it aside. That gives me time and space for Stages 1-6 above, and it helps me return to the feedback with clear eyes.
If I’m really struggling with the feedback (because it’s outrageous or because it’s depressing or because it’s overwhelming), I ask a trusted colleague to glance it over. Because they’re more distanced from the whole thing, they can break it down for me, and sometimes they help me realise that fixing my piece will be less work than I thought. (Other times, they share my justifiable outrage, which makes me feel a lot better!)
I find it helpful to highlight (1) the bits of feedback that explain what needs changing in one colour, and (2) the bits the reviewer really liked in another colour. It helps me keep track of what needs doing, and also keeps me from losing sight of what was already good about the piece.
This is the hardest part, but it really yields results: I really, really, really try to give every suggestion and criticism serious consideration, even when my first reaction is ‘no’, ‘pshaw’, or ‘wtf’. Sometimes, this helps me realise why I wrote something a certain way, and why I don’t want to change it. Other times, it helps me fine-tune something, even if I don’t make the whole change that was requested. But every single time, it makes my writing better.