How to Ask for Constructive Feedback on your Writing

I once wrote a ‘cli-fi’ novel about a biologically engineered crow who saves the world.

I’d worked on it (5 drafts x 350 pages) for almost four years but never once asked for feedback. At the time, my priority was to get words on the page first, then get feedback once I had a ‘polished’ version ready. Finally, after endless edits, tweaks, and refinements… I knew I had to get an opinion. I asked a writerly friend I know at work what she thought.

As I type this article, I can still see myself scanning her comments in disbelief. In the politest possibly way, she suggested that the book was almost unreadable. She also asked something I’d completely overlooked in my haste to plough ahead.

“Did you talk to anyone before you started this?” she said in the office, then added, “I mean, before you actually started writing?”

“No. Why would I? I thought it was, you know, a cool idea.”

“Well, to see if the premise has commercial promise. If it doesn’t, it won’t get published.”

“I guess I could self-publish…”

Why feedback is crucial

“Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” – Ken Blanchard

If I’d asked for feedback earlier in the writing process, I’d have saved myself a lot of grief. Today, I might have a commercial manuscript. Or at least an editor might have read it and given me some direction.

And while the above scenario relates to creative writing, the importance of feedback applies to all types of writing, whether its academic, scientific, or marketing.

Today, part of my role at Klariti is to write (and review) business and technical documents. Here’s a few things I’ve learnt about when and how to ask for feedback.

Gain Perspective

If you ask for feedback, especially from impartial reviewers (i.e. not your immediate circle of friends or work buddies), you’ll get insights from others’ perspectives.

This will help you understand how your material is perceived by readers with different backgrounds, experiences, or viewpoints. It can provide you with that additional piece of information that ‘rounds out’ your document.

Identify Blind Spots

It’s easy to get ‘snow-blind’ when writing for long periods on the same text.

Whatever you do, don’t send it out without getting some distance from the material.

And if, for some reason, you can’t get someone to review your material, put it aside overnight. In the morning, it’ll be like looking at a new document. You’ll see it with fresh eyes.

Impartial reviewers will identify points you may not have noticed or considered, such as unclear passages, inconsistencies, or logical flaws.

Validate Ideas

For technical documents, feedback from SMEs can validate the accuracy of your text. Once the feedback is integrated into the final draft, you can send it out to customers in the confidence that it’s been peer reviewed and technically sound.

Avoid Technical Mistakes

Feedback can help you catch errors or inconsistencies in your documents before they become significant issues. Addressing these issues early can save time and resources in the long run, and keep customers onside.

This is especially important if you’re writing specifications, requirements, or work instructions where each word must be unambiguous and correct.

Likewise, when writing compliance and legal documents make sure to circulate the material to the SOC” team for review. Impartial third-party reviewers will often identify something you overlooked or needs to be flagged in the document.

Fear of Feedback

If I’m honest with myself, the main reason I didn’t send out the cli-fi novel was that I was scared. I’d never written a full-length book before. Creative writing is also very personal so it can be hard to separate criticism of your work from personal criticism.

However, in a business setting, you need to get past personal vanity. I suspect that for most of us, the reasons we may be hesitant to ask for feedback include:

Fear of Criticism

It’s understandable to fear negative feedback or criticism on your writing. As mentioned above, it can feel like you’re the one being criticized, especially if the tone of the delivery is on the harsh side.

However, in the long run constructive feedback will give your writing more confidence.

When someone highlights the mistakes, you can make the corrections, you have the comfort of knowing what gets shipped to customers is valid and technically accurate.  

Lack of Confidence

If English isn’t your first language, or if you struggled with grammar at school, you might be hesitant about sharing your work with others.

Previous negative experiences, such as receiving harsh criticism or feeling misunderstood, can discourage us from seeking feedback in the future. But there are ways to counter this as we’ll discuss below.

Desire for Validation

Some people seek validation or approval from others and prefer to hear positive feedback rather than constructive criticism. Asking for feedback may challenge their need for affirmation.

But the downside of ‘playing it safe’ is that you never grow as a writer.  

Perceived Time Constraints

“Sorry, but I was too busy to get it reviewed?”

Busy schedules and competing priorities may lead you to believe you don’t have time to seek feedback or engage in the revision process. In truth, this is an excuse to sidestep what really needs to be done – send your material out to be reviewed – and deal with your reviewers’ ‘judgement’.

Overestimation of Skills

You probably know someone who overestimates their writing abilities, believing their work to be beyond improvement. This overconfidence can deter them from seeking feedback and often reflects a lack of confidence.

Preference for Independence

Some writers prefer to work independently and may view seeking feedback as an intrusion or interference in their creative process. 

Cultural Factors

Cultural norms and expectations regarding feedback may vary, with some cultures placing less emphasis on seeking or giving feedback openly. In societies with more formal hierarchies, asking for feedback can be sensitive if it potentially leads to a loss of face.

When to ask for feedback

No one likes this answer but it depends.

You need to take into account the scope of the project, your working methods, and your relationship with your reviewers.

However, there are several checkpoints in the writing process where seeking feedback can be particularly beneficial:

Outline Phase

Asking for feedback on your outline can help ensure that your project is on the right track from the outset. This is one of the mistakes I made with the novel.

Impartial reviewers can provide input on the structure, organization, and direction of your writing before you invest significant time in drafting. If you’re writing a thesis, for example, I’d highly recommend getting a second pair of eyes before you start.

Early Drafts

Seeking feedback on early drafts allows you to get input on your ideas, content, and structure while there is still flexibility to make changes.

Reviewers can suggest where to make improvement and identify issues or concerns before you finalize your writing.

Midpoint of the Writing Process

For larger documents, such as detailed white papers, asking for feedback at the midpoint allows you to assess your progress and make adjustments as needed.

Reviewers can ensure you don’t deviate from the initial writing plan and suggest where your writing may be lacking or needs to focus more attention.

Near Completion

Seeking feedback on the final draft can ensure that your work is polished and ready for prime time.

Peer reviewers can do a final check for errors, inconsistencies, or areas for improvement before you finalize your work.

After Revision

After incorporating earlier feedback, make sure to get additional feedback to ensure that your revisions have addressed the concerns or issues identified previously.

Technical editors can validate that your revisions have improved the overall quality of your text.

Final Review Before Publication

Finally, seeking feedback before publishing or submitting your writing allows you to receive a final review and ensure that your work meets the necessary standards or requirements.

Ask the reviewers to check for errors, clarity, and technical accuracy before you share your work with a wider audience. At this point, there should be no change to the actual text. However, you may want to double check that the format, structure, and layout are correct.  

Ultimately, the best time to ask for feedback depends on your specific goals, timeline, and preferences. However, seeking feedback at multiple points throughout the writing process can identify areas for improvement, refine those ideas, which leads to higher-quality work.

How to Ask for feedback

Here’s a suggested framework you can use to ask for constructive feedback:

Set the Stage

Start by expressing your appreciation for the recipient’s time and willingness to provide feedback.

Explain that your open to receiving constructive criticism to improve the material you’re working on.

Provide Context

Briefly explain the purpose or context of the writing project. This could include the intended audience, the main objectives, and any specific areas you’re seeking feedback on. Specify the type of feedback you’re looking for, such as tone, grammar, or structure.

Ask Specific Questions

Pose targeted questions to guide the feedback process and focus the reviewer’s attention on areas of interest. For example:

  “Could you please provide feedback on the flow of the narrative?”

  “Is the tone appropriate for the intended audience?”

  “Where could the text be more concise or impactful?”

Encourage Honest Feedback

Assure the reviewer that you value constructive criticism.

Emphasize that you’re seeking feedback to improve and that you welcome both positive and negative insights. Encourage them to be specific and provide examples or suggestions for improvement.

Later, follow up with reviewers to clarify any questions or seek additional guidance. Implement the feedback into your writing where appropriate.

Provide Guidelines

Asking for feedback without providing clear guidance or specific questions can result in vague or unhelpful responses. Be specific about the areas you want feedback on and provide clear guidance or questions to guide the reviewer’s response.

Offer guidance on how to provide helpful feedback. This could include suggestions such as:

  • Pointing out specific strengths and weaknesses.
  • Offering suggestions for improvement or alternative approaches.
  • Providing examples or references to illustrate points.

Show your Gratitude

Thank the reviewer again for their time and input. Express appreciation for any feedback received, whether positive or critical.

Let the reviewer know that their feedback is valuable to you and that you will carefully consider their insights in revising your document.

Asking for feedback with the expectation of receiving only positive comments can hinder your growth as a writer. Try to be open to both positive and negative feedback. Constructive criticism is essential for improvement.

3 Mistakes when Asking for Feedback

It’s important to approach the process thoughtfully to ensure you receive helpful and constructive input.

Here are some common mistakes to avoid when seeking feedback:

Ignoring Feedback

Disregarding or dismissing feedback without careful consideration can hinder your progress as a writer.

Take the time to consider each piece of feedback, even if it is critical. Look for patterns or common themes in the feedback to identify areas for improvement, especially if you hear this from multiple reviewers.

Reacting Defensively

Getting upset or taking feedback personally will discourage others from providing honest feedback in the future.

While it can be hard, especially if the comments sting, focus on the feedback itself, rather than the person delivering it.

Asking Too Many People

Soliciting feedback from too many people can result in conflicting opinions and overwhelm you with feedback.

Instead, select a small group of trusted reviewers who have relevant expertise or perspectives.

Example Request for Feedback

Here’s an example of an email you can send to request feedback.

Subject: Request for Feedback on API Guide for New Product

Dear [Reviewer’s Name],

I’m reaching out to request your assistance with a writing project I’ve been working on, and I would greatly appreciate your feedback.

I’ve attached a draft of the document [or provide a link if it’s an online document], which is a [brief description of the document’s purpose or context]. My goal is to [explain the main objectives or desired outcomes].

I’m specifically seeking feedback on [mention specific areas of interest, such as clarity, tone, organization, etc.], and I would be grateful for your insights in these areas. If possible, could you please answer the following questions:

  1. What are the strengths of the material in terms of [specified aspect]?
  2. Are there any areas where the writing could be improved?
  3. Do you have any suggestions to improve the effectiveness of the material?

Thank you for taking the time to review my work. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Best regards,

[Your Name]

Using this framework to request feedback to encourage the constructive criticism you need to grow as a writer.

The Finer Points

Seeking feedback is essential to improve any skill whether it’s writing, planning or coding. Instead of running away from feedback, look for ways to weave it into your overall writing process.

By leveraging feedback, you’ll be able to identify blind spots and areas where you can improve, ultimately leading to higher-quality writing.

I’d like to close with a favorite quote from Anne Lamott from the introduction to “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” about the value of feedback:

“I know I’m somewhat criticism-deaf, criticism-resistant, but I try to keep an open mind about it because I know that being a good writer has to involve being a good reader and a good listener.”