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💪 Cohort 9, Feedback Gym Notes

Every week day I host a one-hour 'Feedback Gym' in Write of Passage. It's an event centered around 1:1 breakout rooms where people read and exchange spoken feedback. It fuses the face-to-face character of live session breakouts with the collaborative spirit of async editing.

Michael Dean
Michael Dean
8 min read

Friday, October 14th, 2022

  • Shiny Dime -- Can you start before you know your Shiny Dime? (Rachael Tiss). Graham Lau noted: "Yeah, I often find myself needing to write quite a lot before I really find the key points. Then I feel a lot better deleting stuff after that."  Often the shiny dime gets discovered through the writing process. Jonathan Vasquez said, 'Your shiny dime might not be what you think.' Often you think it's one thing, and through writing, another more powerful idea subconsciously emerges. Think of a first draft as an exploration to discover your main idea, and your second draft as a way to clearly explain it to a stranger.

  • Writing that scares you -- Taylor Foreman said, "There is shocking beauty on the other side of what scares you." This reminds me of a quote about personal writing (which I'll paraphrase). Real vulnerability isn't about writing the things you wouldn't share with other people, but writing about the things you often don't even share with yourself.

  • Personal stories as research -- Steven Foster noted he had the urge to use facts and statistics throughout the piece, but people responded more to a personal story that was included at the end. It helps to think of your own personal stories as research, gained from your own life, and only you have access to them. It's like a competitive advantage. Experience is a kind of research that no one else has.

  • Write for one person -- It helps you get specific. If you are writing for 'the masses' without realizing, there's a risk of including vague context to get everyone up to speed. Instead, visualize a specific person in your life. By knowing what they know, you can cut the context-building, and get straight into what's interesting.

Thursday, October 13th, 2022

  • The 20-5-1-5-20 Method --  Ellen Koenig proposed a neat writing exercise that involves a series of 5 timers. First you free-write for 20 minutes to go wide and explore an idea. Then you have 5 minutes to write about one of the ideas that emerged. After that, you have 1 minute to distill that idea down to its essence. Once you know the essence, you unpack it in 5 minutes, and then 20. It's a cycle of diverge>converge>diverge. It's 51 minute total, and something worth trying in the Writing Gym (11am ET on weekdays)

  • Record Your Feedback Gym Conversations -- When your talking about your idea in a 1:1 call, you might find yourself talking in "Friend Brain" instead of "Writer Brain." There's noticeably fire in the way ideas come out when a real person is on the other end. Yet, when you write in a Google doc to an abstract audience, the energy might feel muted. How can you transfer the energy and phrasing of spoken feedback sessions on the page?

  • Applying architect vs. archaeologist -- After each Write of Passage assignment, you can refer to the architect vs. archaeologist concept to help choose your next topic. Do you want to write another essay on a similar topic (architect), or do you want to explore a new topic (archaeologist)?

  • Share your draft before you think it's ready -- I always catch myself thinking, "I only worked on this for 30 minutes, it's definitely not ready," and I'm always surprised. Even if the draft is nowhere near finished, it's helpful to show it to a reader to see what questions they have. They might be asking you about facets of the idea that were obvious to you, but unknown to them. It's helps you identity your blindspots (assumed context). The Feedback Gym is a great place to test ideas that are 10-50%, before you post on Circle.

  • Using the story as the driver -- Jonathan Vasquez shared: "You can cut through large topics and navigate controversial subjects with a good story people can relate to." Jon brings up a good point about using stories instead of ideas to drive the narrative. If you try to structure an essay around a series of abstract ideas, it's hard to limit the scope of the essay (anything can relate to anything). But when you use a personal story as the frame of the essay, you know to include observations that augment the story.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

  • When to use one-sentence paragraphs -- Janahan Sivaraman said that one-sentence paragraphs are 'mic drop moments.' Think of these like a spotlight. Whenever you put an idea in a one-sentence paragraph, you draw attention to it. Note: this trick works best when your varying your paragraph lengths. If all your paragraphs are walls-of-text, nothing stands out. If all your paragraphs short 1-2 sentence blocks, nothing stands out. Vary your sentence lengths, and know when to drop the mic.

  • Goal per paragraph -- Charlie Becker brought up the idea of aiming for at least one "aha!" per paragraph. It could come in the form of a big laugh, a surprising insight, or whatever is important to you. It's worth stopping to ask if each paragraph is 'pulling its own weight,' (-- Latham Turner) however you want to define that. Cheryl Harrison defined it as making sure that each paragraph directly relates to the purpose of the story. What's important for you to remember in each paragraph? Create a small check-list, and use it in your editing process.

  • Burnt ends -- Pratik and others noted how there can sometimes be two essays stuffed into one. Essays gain clarity when you cut competing themes, and focus on a single clear idea. That said, don't think of it as 'cutting' ideas. Your removing the idea from this essay, but it's a seed that can blossom into a whole new essay. Some writers have a section at the bottom of their doc where they keep all their 'burnt ends' (leftover ideas). When the essay is complete, you can shift these into a 'burnt ends' doc, which can help you start future essays.

  • Research in the editing phase -- Cheryl Harrison brought up how research is helpful after you've already started. By Googling themes or events in your essay, you can come across specific phrases that can add color to your essay.

  • Flexible quality bar - - It's okay to have essays of different quality on your site. You might be feeling pressure for every new essay has to be "as good" as the last one. High standards are good, but you don't want them to be paralyzing. There are a few tricks to help you publish when you feel something isn't up to par:
  1. You can use 'featured' essays on your website, so that new readers start with your favorite post instead of your latest post.
  2. You can also create a "Notes" section for ideas that are shorter, or feel slightly less developed.
  3. You can do a 'soft launch,' meaning you publish to your site, without distributing it to everyone through email or social media.

  • Reading out loud is a great tool for editing --  It's a way to catch complex sentence structures. If something is complicated to say, it's likely complicated to read. Try repeating it out loud in a simpler way, and then put that on the page. Cheryl Harrison

Tuesday, October 11th, 2022

  • Chekoff's Gun -- Leslie Myint introduced an interesting term called "Chekoff's Gun." It comes from theatre -- if you place a loaded gun on a stage, there's a promise to the audience that it's going to be used. In essence, it means that irrelevant elements should be removed from an essay. Sometimes first drafts can introduce 2-6 different core ideas, without fully unravelling any of them. This term is a reminder to full resolve 1 thread instead of introducing many unresolved threads.

  • Stop and say it out loud -- Every so often, it helps to pull back from the details of your essay and re-state the main idea out loud. In under 15 seconds, answer, "What is this about again?" Each time, you clarify the root of your essay, and it helps you aim your details at it. @Janahan Sivaraman

  • Use less complex words and jargon -- If you'd like to get in the habit of using small words, read Hemmingway excerpts. He's notorious for writing with many one-syllable words. Read slowly, and count the syllables of each word. It's pretty incredible. This doesn't mean you can't use big words. But when you default to simple language, your 3-5 syllable words will stand out and have more impact. @Keith Conway

  • Meeting the author -- Pratik said "Share more personal stories and moments, that will allow the reader to get to know you better." This points to an overlooked reason why readers read your essay in the first place in the first place. They're not just curious to know your ideas, but to know you, personally.

  • Start with loose constraints -- Alan Hibbard said that writing within a word count leads to a noticeably cramped style. Instead, write freely, then trim the fluff. Word count is secondary. It's a great point. We encourage people to submit drafts around 1,000 words for two reasons, 1) it's more manageable to edit, and 2) you'll get more peer feedback (it's intimidating to edit long essays). That said, there's nothing stopping you from free-writing 2,000+ words , and then trimming it down to focus on the good parts. Start loose, self-edit, then share. (Fun fact, David Perell sometimes writes out 10-20,000 words before trimming down to 1-2,000 word essay.)

  • The four stages of competence -- Maybe you're frustrated that your first draft isn't Personal, Observational, or Playful. That's okay! When you first learn a concept, it's easier to integrate it in the editing phase. For any new thing we're trying to learn, we go through four stages:
  1. Unconscious incompetence: Before Write of Passage, maybe you never heard the framework of POP Writing.
  2. Conscious incompetence: Now that you're familiar with the concept, you can see it on other student drafts, but you don't see it in your own work.
  3. Conscious competence: The way to start learning is to integrate POP as you edit. Read through your essay, and analyze it with one pillar at a time. Read each paragraph, and ask if there's an opportunity to insert [pillar], then restart with another pillar. It's slow, but it builds mental muscle.
  4. Unconscious competence: Eventually, this framework will be automatic, and your first drafts will POP.

Monday, October 10th, 2022

  • Discovering the Intro -- The exciting stories and anecdotes often come at the end of our first draft. We need to "warm up" before we uncover the good stuff. Our intro is often hiding at the bottom. It's really common to shift key paragraphs from the bottom up to the top. This mean you should, 1) be open on the order of your paragraphs until you've 'explored,' and 2) as an editor, give the draft a read before you dive in and give intricate feedback. You'll have more context. Nick Kim

  • Untangling Paragraphs -- Elise Entzenberger introduced the phrase of 'untangling a knotted paragraph.' When a paragraph is difficult, it can help to re-write instead of editing it. You can do this in your current doc, or, you can copy it into a new doc and see where it takes you.

  • POP Feedback Buddies -- If you struggle with a certain dimension of POP, it can help to find a feedback buddy who excels in that dimension. You fill in for each other's weaknesses. A personal writer will help an observational writer share their stories. An observational writer will help a personal writer articulate the universal lesson. Etc.

  • Be Specific -- the more you can be specific, the more likely the reader will understand you. Vague and general words might mean different things to different people (Alan Hibbard). Consider articulating the obvious, but in creative ways. It's an opportunity to be both clear and playful.

  • Sub-headers -- Sub-headers are a visual guide to help orient yourself and your writer. They are an instant way to process the seams between ideas. Think of it as a filmmaker noting a 'scene change.' Your reader knows you're entering new territory, and your sub-header text gives them a clue. If you don't like the way they interrupt flow, you can delete them when you publish, but consider using them to help organize your own thoughts.

  • Titles Matter -- Even if it's a draft, test out ideas that are interesting and inspiring. You can highlight your title, share your thinking, and guide your editors to give feedback on it. Your title is important. It's often is the invitation for the reader to open your essay in the first place. Karena de Souza, Ellen Koenig

  • High-Leverage Editing -- from Arman Khodadoost on the Feedback Gym format-- "I like the time constraint of having to read someone’s article quickly and for the first time. It helps you focus on what the main points of editing focus need to be."

Craft

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