Adventures With Feedback

Good morning, my apologies for the delay in writing. A lot has been going on of late, and frankly my dear blog fell by the wayside. Well, that and I was intimidated by some other blogs. But that’ll be another post. This morning, as I sit on my back porch and watch my dog chase rabbits, I want to say a little about feedback. I’m corralling quite a bit of it for several clients and their projects, and I’ve noticed a lot of good things and bad things that are all worth addressing. Here then, are a few points.

1. Nothing is worse than unhelpful opinion. If you’re the feedback giver, the last thing people want is your opinion. Of course, that’s what we say we want when we ask you for feedback, but we’re not really looking for your opinion, because an opinion isn’t anything more than your emotion. Those emotions get in the way of what I really need to take away from the interaction, your logical thoughts past the emotion. Sure, tell me you liked the thing I wanted, but go past the blanket “I liked this” or “This sucked walrus genitals” and give me something I can take back to the writing lab or the client and are actually viable possible improvements. The downside here is that your initial rush to be the-person-who-said-stuff (we’ll get there in a second) goes out the window, because what I’d prefer is a moment’s thought ahead of fingers hitting keys. Your opinion is going to suckerpunch the writer’s self-esteem, but when you get past the like/dislike barrier, you can actually help someone get something done.

2. Reverse the polarity on the negative-positive comment matrix. This is particularly true in playtests, where the positive comments feel like breezes compared to the negative’s hurricane force. Worse, a lot of people just rattle off a litany of complaints, dislikes and ill-conceived notions of oversight and call that feedback. Anyone can be negative. Anyone can say a thing that someone is going to take as evidence of their own failure, if that’s what they’re afraid of or in some way looking for and expecting. I’m not suggesting you hold back the negatives, I’m suggesting you deliver the positives with an equal intensity. This is the failing of a lot of “comment delivery systems” like “the compliment sandwich” or “roses and thorns” – the negatives are always going to be focused on so long as they’re delivered in more critical, biting ways.

3. You actually DO have to engage with the material. If it’s a game, you should play it. If it’s a book, you should read, not skim. If it’s a product, use it. What exactly do you think gets accomplished or how do you think any of what you say gets taken when somewhere along the line you admit to never actually doing more than a superficial glance?

4. If your statement can be prefaced by, “If I were the person making this …” think about the statement’s desired effect before you give it. As the feedback-provider, you’re not the content creator. You didn’t spend nights writing, you didn’t spend the hours sweating over the project, you don’t have to pop open your inbox with a sense of dread that all you’re going to read day after day is how people think your work is inferior. This isn’t the moment where you try and “prove” that you’re a better person than whoever made the thing you’re giving feedback on. This isn’t the moment where you stroke your own ego while demolishing someone else’s.

5. Don’t disguise #4 with some of that passive aggressive “Don’t you think …” stuff. You’re not veiling your attempts to be recognized as superior when you do this. What you say might actually be a good question, if you just went ahead and asked the question. Superiority, getting one up on the person, being smarter than … all of that accomplishes ZERO, sort like bringing a mitt to a ball game and expecting to ask you to go play in right field.

6. Interact with the material as-is, before you start interacting with it as-you’d-like-it-to-be. Yeah, you might not think that this character should have done X, or you might create some elaborate “headcanon” bullshit to satisfy yourself when you’re in someone else’s IP pool or develop some elaborate “shipping” to justify your own wants or beliefs that something should be a certain way. (A lot of these stem from fandoms and fanfiction, both of which still annoy me to no end). In playtesting, a lot of this gets passed off as “solution finding”, even though the perception of a problem only exists for the person who’s finding a solution. If the item is a problem for YOU, make a note, but you need not produce a solution – that’s the content creator’s job. (SIDE NOTE: These solutions to not-actually-problems often involve complicated steps, or only work in specific instances that aren’t easily duplicated consistently.) Likewise, if you’re reading a book and think Character A and Character B should be on a one-way course to the Bone Zone on the Hot Lovin’ Express, but they’re not, that’s not a reason to label the entire work as “garbage” because you haven’t gotten what you want. The point of feedback is to help the creator produce a work, not sate your whims.

What’s to be done? When giving feedback, keep your focus on the work, on delivering the positives in a way that gives the creator a sense of accomplishment, and framing the negative in a way that doesn’t crush the person, instead pointing out your view that you THINK (remember: feedback isn’t fact) elements can be improved upon. Be positive. Help people make better things, without the need to praise yourself or make you smarter than them. It isn’t about you, so get out of the way.


Happy writing.


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