A lot of people have asked me about how to get feedback on their essays. How do they publish it? Who should they ask? And why do they cringe and worry so much about whether or not people will be kind and say good things (or terrible things) about their essays?

Part of the fear in publishing is about being taken down by other people and having people hate what you make. Criticism can feel absolutely terrible and really sting. So how do you craft an essay — and share it — in a way that elicits positive responses?

While I can’t ban all internet trolls from existing, I can tell you some strategic tips about asking for feedback. We rarely do it, and it’s really helpful:

Be direct about the type of feedback you want.

How to ask for feedback (as a writer).

As a writer, it’s your job to proactively say exactly what you’re looking for with a review of your essay. It works really well if you are very clear about what feedback you’re looking for.

For example, here are some types of feedback you might be looking for:

  • Idea-based feedback: what do you think of the idea? Should I keep pursuing it? Is it a good direction?
  • Structural / developmental: does it make sense? Is it organized well? Should the ideas be re-arranged or sequenced differently?
  • Copyediting/proofreading: More fine-tuned, looking for lots of little errors and any last-minute typos.

If you’re looking for idea-based feedback, you might tell someone, “Hey, I have a draft with a bunch of typos in it, it’s not polished, but I want a gut-check that the idea is on the right track. Mind taking a look (and ignoring the typos) and letting me know if you think the overall direction is interesting?” 

Because there are so many types of editing and feedback, it’s hard to know whether you want another person to tell them your ideas on the right track — or to nit-pick through the commas and the punctuation.

You have to tell people what you want.

As a writer, it’s our job to give guidance to what we want. For me, this includes sending early drafts to friends that say, “Hey friend! I’m working on a piece and this is a super rough draft. I don’t need any heavy criticism just yet, but I’d love some words of encouragement and if you could tell me if you think this essay has some good pieces in it.”

I also love asking, when I’m ready, for people to “rip it up, tear it apart, let me know how it stands up to critique.”

How to GIVE feedback:

There’s a great essay and resource from the Facebook design team about how to give great feedback. There’s a difference between critique and criticism, and it’s important to understand the difference. From the article:

  • Criticism passes judgement — Critique poses questions
  • Criticism finds fault — Critique uncovers opportunity
  • Criticism is personal — Critique is objective
  • Criticism is vague — Critique is concrete
  • Criticism tears down — Critique builds up
  • Criticism is ego-centric — Critique is altruistic
  • Criticism is adversarial — Critique is cooperative
  • Criticism belittles the designer — Critique improves the design

This is a great list for understanding how to frame your feedback. Rather than saying “your idea is shit,” for example (although why would we say that!?), we could say, “It’s hard for me to understand the idea because the sentences are really long and winding. Can you try again with shorter sentences to unpack the idea more?”

Their guiding principle for giving feedback is that “critique should not serve the purpose of boosting the ego or the agenda of anyone in the meeting.”

When you give another writer feedback, you’re helping them to build up the essay. Consider yourself a collaborator and a coach that’s helping shape and tease out the best of their ideas. What questions can you ask that will help them clarify their ideas? How can they better explain things? Where do they need to give further stories and examples? What could be simplified or seems confusing to you?

This quality of feedback is immensely helpful, and when I get it from fellow editors, I am grateful.

What about you?

When have you asked for feedback? When have you received useful feedback on your writing? What works, and what hasn’t worked? Are you nervous about sharing your writing?