• Chris OBrien

Reviewing: Some of the best feedback is right behind your back

Updated: Jul 1, 2019


Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

I'm 29-years-old. That means I've been around for 348 months.


For 341 of those, I've lived in the Midwest. From Midland to Holland (Michigan) to Chicago. All three of these places are full of really nice people. Kind. Polite. Non-confrontational. The Midwest is the land of "gosh darnits" and "you son of a gun."


One of the golden rules in the Midwest is to avoid confrontation at all costs (except in a political discussion at the Thanksgiving table).


Another famous one: If you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say it at all (or at least have the decency to say it behind the person's back).


But for seven of those 348 months, Ashley and I were living in New York City for a "study abroad" program. Which, to be fair, anything outside the Midwest should be considered "abroad." I was working at a newspaper and I remember this one time when one of the main editors stormed into another editor's office and just started screaming at him. Full red-in-the-face shouting.


I was a fish out of water watching this tirade. I'm sitting there in my baggy red dress shirt and a pair of khakis, both purchased from the "Midwestern kid heading to church" catalog. I was totally confused. Wait, this can happen? In a real life office?


I assumed the other editor would sit there quietly. It'd be like getting yelled at by your coach in basketball. Just nod your head, sit down on the bench, drink a warm cup of Gatorade.


To my surprise, he stood up and started screaming right back at the boss. Just as passionately defending his view. It became like a baseball manager and an umpire going toe-to-toe behind home plate. I needed to grab some popcorn.


The shouting match ended. And the two were... absolutely fine. I think they even went to lunch together.


I was stunned. Wait, that actually, kind of... worked?


The Alternative


What normally happens in this type of situation, at least in the Midwest, is there would be no yelling at all. The boss would use a few passive aggressive jabs. The employee would nod, smile, but the whole time thinking, "Just keep your cool. Keep your cool. Don't yell. Don't yell. Just get to lunch." At lunch, the employee goes off telling their friends about why the boss was wrong, why they're always wrong, and here's what I should have totally told them. The boss will go off to lunch and either think, "Well, I think that went alright?" or, "I totally crushed it in there. That management article I read was spot on."


What's interesting is the New York City shouting match looks angrier, meaner, more intense on the surface but it was secretly a "nicer" interaction. Both sides aired things out. Both sides ended the conversation knowing exactly where the other person stood. They didn't go bash each other at separate lunches, they both went to lunch... together! Will either one's feedback change the other person's mind or course of action? Maybe. Maybe not. But at least the cards are out on the table.


In the "friendly" alternative situation, the boss goes on oblivious to how the employee truly feels about things. And the employee has now created a one-sided narrative of what the boss is like to other co-workers. Their interaction looked nice and polite on the surface, but it's a total mess underneath.


Nice vs. Polite


There's a subtle but significant difference between these two words and it comes into play big time in the editing round for your book. You don't need your editors to shout things at you, but you do want them (or at least the designated coaches in the group) to move from being Polite to being Nice.


Here's what I mean:


Polite is saying: I think it's great. 100 percent, everything worked. I love it!


Nice is saying: Hey, I think it's great that you wrote this whole book. BUT it's a little too long. I think you should look at getting rid of this chapter and shortening some of the scenes here, here, and here. I'm sorry. I don't mean to be a jerk. Just want to help you out.


The first one feels warm and fuzzy. The second one is harder to accept.


In Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen's insightful book Thanks for the Feedback they explain that feedback is tough because while we do have a desire to learn and improve, we also have a deeper more fundamental need "to be loved, accepted, and respected just as we are." Feedback, then, whether it's in the Midwest or anywhere else, is a direct conflict between these two pursuits.

Receiving feedback sits at the intersection of these two needs--our drive to learn and our longing for acceptance. These needs run deep, and the tension between them is not going away. But there's a lot each of us can do to manage the tension--to reduce anxiety in the face of feedback and to learn in spite of the fear. We believe that the ability to receive feedback well is not an inborn trait but a skill that can be cultivated.
(-Thank You for the Feedback)

Ideally, your Supreme Court of Editors will tell you everything that's on their minds. But that's really a big thing to ask. Especially if they are your friends and family. It's essentially asking them, "Hey, can you please turn off our relationship when giving these notes. Tell me what you would say anonymously." That's hard to do, it's the same reason why a company survey or review of a boss--when our names ARE attached--paints a much glossier picture than the all-hell-breaks-loose anonymous open forum.


One of our editing services at Long Overdue is to serve as your in-between, collecting the anonymous feedback and sorting things out. We pool together similar notes, find similar themes, and also shield you from anything that's unnecessarily harsh or unhelpful.


This approach came from my own experience writing books. The toughest feedback is hard to hear, but I know it's essential. I want to hear the stuff people would say if I wasn't in the room.


Why? Because there's nothing more painful, as a writer, to publish your book, then see a 1-star review--or not even that, maybe just five years later, you pick up your own book and say, "Oof, this part sucked," then you go to your editor friend and say, "Hey, how did I miss this in revisions?" and your friend replies, "Yeaaahhhh, so I was going to say that, but I didn't want to hurt your feelings."


That would end up being a much worse feeling! Because then it's too late to edit. Too late to make the change.


Once we accept that the rough draft is at the 60 percent mark, then there are no feelings to be hurt. We know it's not a complete work. We know it's a D-. Like if I went to a pottery class or a cooking class, I wouldn't expect the teacher to rave about how great my work was. I'm a beginner. I'd want encouragement for showing up and tips to get better. With the editing stage, we should be closer to that beginner "taking a new class" mentality than a professional seeking validation.


But still, it's all way easier said than done. It's hard to ask the editors to shake the relationship piece and it's hard, as the writer, to shake the "human craving acceptance" piece. Writing a book is a very solo and personal endeavor so it becomes difficult to separate yourself from the work. It becomes very personal and this is one of the toughest parts of the craft.


BUT it's another reason why I believe writing is such a valuable profession/hobby/experience. Writing a book helps us cultivate the skill of receiving feedback, which benefits us in every other part of life.


At Long Overdue, we encourage your reading group to include any feedback that they would rather not have their names attached to. The stuff they wouldn't say to the writer's face. We will sometimes reword or put some Midwestern seasoning on anything that seems too abrasive and help you integrate into your next draft.


As the writer, you can dust off the manuscript for the first time in six weeks, take the notes, and go on the next part of the quest.


I started this part in third person, "Chris O'Brien is the" but felt way too weird. So hey, thanks for reading. Hope this article was helpful. I am the Founder of Long Overdue LLC. Long Overdue helps people who have always wanted to write a book with the writing/editing/publishing process. If you have a project that you need help on fill out our contact form or email library@longoverduestories.com

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