Grammar Nazis don’t give good feedback.
After giving feedback on more than 300 essays over three Write of Passage cohorts, I realize that the key to great feedback is interest.
Every essay is a conversation, and conversations are only enjoyable if both parties are interested. Conversations die when one person focuses on the trivial and the other responds with glassy eyes and yawns. The phrase, "to be interesting, be interested," carries over to giving feedback.
If you’re interested, you will be more likely to spot opportunities for quick digressions. You will notice if there are loose ends. You will encourage the writer to explain and expound on ideas. Your critical feedback won’t come off as adversarial.
Your interest drives your investment in the outcome.
If you’re interested in what the writer wants to share, your suggestions for how to make their ideas more comprehensible, actionable, and persuasive will flow.
It’s important to remember the goal of giving feedback is not to argue or make a point, but to improve the essay. Anything you do that is not in service of developing the essay is a detriment.
If writers feel you’re on their side, they will be more receptive to feedback. How do you do that? Tell them what the essay means to you. Tell them why it’s important and how it’s interesting to you. Once they appreciate your buy-in, they will be open to your suggestions.
I’ve written drafts where I struggled to get my point across. When someone explains what I’ve been unable to articulate, I have faith in them. They’ve earned my trust. I will blow up my essay because they get it and I want other people to get it, too.
Now that you’re interested, how do you give quality feedback?
I look at feedback through the lens of Khe Hy’s 10k framework. The framework prioritizes your work according to skill and leverage.
10k work is high skill and high leverage. Devising a new marketing strategy would be 10k work. $10 work is low skill and low leverage. It’s the equivalent of clearing out your emails. It’s important to focus on the 10k work without getting bogged down in the lower value work. All of the work is important, but prioritizing higher value work accomplishes more.
Translating the 10k framework to giving feedback:
10k: Core Idea
$100: Emotional Impact
$10: Line Edits
10K: Core Idea
Every essay needs a core idea that lingers in the reader’s mind. The clearer this idea is, the more impactful the essay. Identifying the core idea so the writer can focus the essay is the single most important goal of feedback. The rest of the essay serves to illustrate and explain the importance of the core idea. Any word, sentence, or paragraph that does not do so can be cut.
High Skill: It’s hard to sum up an essay in one sentence.
High Leverage: If the point is clear, the reader has context and can focus on internalizing the lesson and developing actionable ideas. Knowing the core idea allows the writer to focus and remove extraneous writing.
1K: Emotional Impact
Emotional impact is crucial to creating engagement with the reader. Both structural and content elements are necessary.
The structure of an essay impacts the interest and understanding of the reader. Tools like Personal Stories, Hooks, and Calls To Action galvanize the reader. Creating an interesting narrative flow engages the reader.
David Perell coined the acronyms CRIBS and POP in order to describe the content elements of each essay. Where is the essay Confusing, Repetitive, Interesting, Boring, and Surprising? Where is the essay Personal, Observational, and Playful?
By eliminating or re-wording Confusing, Repetitive, and Boring elements and doubling down on Interesting and Surprising elements, every paragraph in the essay becomes more readable and interesting.
The same goes for Personal, Observational, and Playful elements. These elements pull the reader in and make the lessons effective. Essays need a consistent stream of POP. A textbook has a ton of information but is useless if no one wants to read it. Ever wonder why the Olympics feature the background story of athletes?
High Skill: Creating a structure and identifying instances that both convey the core idea and resonate with readers requires understanding, logic, and intuition.
Low Leverage: Structural and content feedback is tactical. The changes are specific to each section of the essay.
$100: What's Missing?
What's obvious to the writer can be confusing to the reader. It’s a fine line between boring the reader and confounding them. Tell the writer when they assume too much from the reader. Help the writer see the blind spots.
Low Skill: There’s no special skill in pointing out what you don’t understand.
High Leverage: Context is key. Without enough context, the reader is lost and the essay is baffling.
$10: Line edits
Line edits and word choice are important but are the grunt work of feedback. An essay with terrible grammar and vocabulary that is ill-suited, non-descriptive, or too complex will be unreadable but these improvements can wait until the more valuable work is completed. The wholesale changes from more valuable types of feedback will replace these mistakes anyway. It doesn’t make sense to sweep the sawdust before you finish cutting the wood.
Low Skill: Need basic vocabulary and grammar skills. Tools like Grammarly and Hemingway automate grammar corrections.
Low Leverage: Have to point out each correction on-by-one. Larger changes will create more need for line edits.
I'm ready for your feedback.
As long as you're not a Grammar Nazi.