Today I'll mention some ways to get the most useful possible feedback from your readers.
- Set expectations. I can't overemphasize this. A respondent will be far more helpful if she or he knows what kind of response is needed. You don't have to give a lengthy report on your expectations, but you should signal what stage you imagine the piece to be in and what kind of time frame is available. If it's a draft for a long-term book project, the reader will respond to the substance of the ideas and perhaps suggest significant rewriting, theoretical reorientation, etc. If it's a writing sample that's due in a few days, the wise reader will catch all your typos and offer suggestions to improve the clarity of the language. The wise reader in that situation will not tell you that you need to engage with Nietzsche. Note, too, that regardless of what you say, the presentation of the manuscript also sends signals about the state of the draft. A poorly formatted, typo-ridden manuscript says "drafty draft draft draft," no matter what you say about it. Conversely, a polished manuscript signals assurance and a relatively more developed argument. More to the point, a clean manuscript allows the reader to focus on language and ideas, because she isn't being distracted by your wonky footnote formatting. And if you want feedback on particular issues ("I'm not sure whether the section about how the Cheezburger Cat formally reproduces the Bergsonian durée is clear"), then by all means ask the reader to respond to them.
- Hold up your own end of the deal. Give your reader a reason to take your argument seriously. Even if the work is incipient, give the reader enough to work with. How useful will it be to receive feedback on five introductory pages that don't actually start in on the body of the argument? The reader can't know if those pages do what they're supposed to do without the rest of the essay in hand. Similarly, meet the deadlines you set for yourself (true confession: I am entirely guilty of not following this advice on occasion). Responding to writing is a generous thing to do, and it's only right to respect your reader's time by delivering what you said you'd deliver, when you said you'd deliver it.
- Be strong. You've asked for feedback; now be willing to accept it. It's always hard to hear from someone else that your baby needs work, even when you already hold that opinion yourself. Make up your mind now that you're going to use this feedback productively.
If I don't flake out (always a possibility -- I mean, this is a blog, after all), then I'll proceed in a future post to outline how to distinguish between helpful and unhelpful feedback, and some of the ways to use feedback productively, including relatively low-quality feedback.
(A lolcat for Gladys.)
Previous posts on responses to writing: