You’ve got pickle on your shirt

In my day-job, I supervise staff. We’re taught to give feedback in a ‘sandwich’. The bread is the good stuff (I really appreciated how you handled X or I know how hard you’ve worked to improve your Y). The ham, cheese and mayo, or Wagyu beef and horseradish are the things that could be improved (by the way your Z kinda sucks).

The theory, as I understand it, is that having the fluffy white bread on either side makes what comes in the middle easier to take in. Bung a pile of cheese and deli meat and a smearing of mustard on a plate and people will just look at it suspiciously. (Not me. No. I would eat it, no questions asked).

If I’m honest, to spread the budget margarine of my metaphor perhaps too thinly, my preference in giving feedback would be just to do bread, bread, bread.

I like telling the people I work with what they’re doing well. I like telling them how much they’ve improved, how much I value their skills and contribution, how basically I couldn’t function without them. I work with wonderful, smart and talented people, so there’s always plenty of bread to go around.

But bread, bread, bread does not a tasty sandwich make. It’s the stuff in the middle, the squishy bits that if assembled wrongly can fall out awkwardly and make a real mess, the mustard pickle on your new white shirt, that’s what the sandwich is all about.

This goes for writing too, only more so.

If you want to improve your work, if you really genuinely want to get better at something, you need to hear from other people about what is and isn’t working. This isn’t a reflection of failure on your part. It’s because when you’ve been focused intensely on something for a long time you can no longer SEE it. You reach a point where you have little real idea what makes sense and what strains credulity. You will miss inconsistencies, typos, unanswered questions. You’ll miss the good stuff too, most likely. You won’t know where what you’ve written sings or soars or makes a reader’s heart beat faster.

I know this is true.

I also retain a residual terror of feedback, which (if we want to get psychological about it) comes from a childhood fear of failure. As much as I repeat like a mantra – there is no such thing as failure, there is no such things as failure – it’s hard to make myself believe it. Because it’s clearly possible to make art that really sucks, or to be more specific, that fails to achieve its goal which is to move a reader in some way.

But the right feedback at the right time is one of our best vaccinations against failure.

In my years writing a PhD, I got to experience the highs and lows of receiving feedback from colleagues, fellow students, supervisors, journal editors, and research subjects.

The kind of feedback you don’t want is the kind that is all about the person giving it and their work, and not about you and yours.

I have been very fortunate to have received a lot of the sort that you do want: generous, insightful, careful and incisive. The best feedback makes you go: ah, of course, I knew that already but I hadn’t quite let myself see it. Or: ah, of course, I had absolutely no idea but that makes perfect sense now I hear it. Or: ah, oh crap, I’m really going to have to think about that one. And I may have a lot of work to do.

The last sort isn’t always welcome, but it is vital. If there is something fundamentally wrong with what you’re doing, it’s much much better to know sooner rather than later.

But there is also such a thing as too soon.

For me at least, I know that early on, what I’m doing is so tentative and delicate and embryonic that even talking about it, let alone having a reader look at it, might simply destroy it. I work in a CONE OF SILENCE. I have to let the work form and grow. And early on, for some projects, might last for years. It is not a time, but a state of existence. The trick is to know when it’s over: to know when your crazy beautiful shut-in inbred story-baby needs to get out and meet some folk.

And then to find the right people to give it to. That is, people who will

  1. Actually read it.
  2. Make an effort to see what this newly-fledged bookling is trying to be, and respond to it on that basis.
  3. Have some sense of where and why the writing is not working, and
  4. Know how to make a damn tasty sandwich, preferably served with a nice cup of tea.

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