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🧠 The Feedback Gym Hivemind

Every week day, we host a WOP "Feedback Gym." After 1:1 breakout sessions, we come back and share insights on writing and editing.

Michael Dean
Michael Dean
7 min read

Feedback Gym Notes
4/14/22 - 4pm ET
Thanks to Ken, Karena, Rueben, Chris, Cam

  • It can be tricky to determine how much context to give new readers. No context leaves them confused. Too much context gives them bored. How can you convey context in an interesting way, so that it appeals to both beginners and experts?
  • Write your first draft for yourself. Write your second draft for a stranger.
  • The structure of our first draft often is the product of free-association. As we write one paragraph, something comes to mind, and so we jump into that idea. It’s like surfing your Roam graph. It’s like you’re a cartographer— you’re getting a sense of the whole terrain. However, don’t confuse your process of discovery as the most efficient directions for new travelers. (Karena)
  • What’s the balance between transactional and transformational? (Ken)
  • Some words clearly mean one thing. Other words can have various interpretations. If you use one of these words, it can change the color and meaning of an entire sentence of paragraph.

Feedback Gym Notes
4/13/22 - 4pm ET
Thanks to Cam, Matt, Leo, Ken, Promeet, Danny

  • It's easy for a backlog of essays to build up that have received feedback. As soon as you receive feedback, set up a calendar event so you block out time to implement and publish.
  • Pop culture references are polarizing. If you mention “Squidward” in your essay, some people will instantly resonate, and others will be alienated. Use context clues so that people can find value, even if they’re unfamiliar.
  • There are two ways to use imagery. 1) You can paint an immersive scenes, with multiple details around the same place. 2) In the context of a chain of logic, you use quick metaphors and phrases to help color your ideas.
  • Getting good feedback from someone you’ve never met before can be a game-changer. Maybe you assumed that a certain type of personate wouldn’t resonate with your work, but then they do after you show them. It refines and puts a face on who your potential audience is.
  • We had a discussion on data vs. stories. The truth is, data is often colored by the stories it’s wrapped within.
  • Don’t poo-poo the scrap heap. At the bottom of your draft (sometimes referred to as the graveyard), are points that could be worth resurrecting, or, seeds for new essays.

Feedback Gym Notes
4/12/22 - 4pm ET
Thanks Cam, Chris, Ken, and Leo

  • There’s a skill in how you interpret feedback. Whiplash is the feeling of getting shaken up by too much feedback, or, contradictory feedback. With time, you’ll feel more comfortable turning down suggestions.
  • Don’t throw Feedback Grenades. It’s not helpful to dive into someone’s draft, dump all of your ideas and reactions, and then let them sort it out themselves. Suggest what their next step might be.
  • The main goal of feedback is to improve the essay you’re helping out on. Treat it like you’re co-writing with them and you want it to be the best it can be.
  • As a feedback giver, it’s important to establish rapport early on. Show that you see the end goal they’re going for. If you can’t do that, then the writer might not trust any critical suggestions you give them.
  • For early essays, it can be helpful to ask questions, riff, go on tangents, and get into the weeds on ideas. For almost finished essays, it helps to be tactical, specific, and focused.
  • It helps to be real and accept if you haven’t found your “shiny dime” yet. False hope misguides you into thinking you’re almost done with your essay. By accepting the main idea isn’t clear enough, it lets you make bold moves to discover what matters most.
  • There are two ends of the feedback spectrum— group-feedback <> 1:1. There is value to each side, and it’s probably best to shift back and forth between the two.

Feedback Gym Notes 4/12/22 - 12pm ET
Thanks to Melissa for hosting!
Also thanks to Kelly, Rik, Khyati, and John

  • First drafts often have most of the ideas you need, they’re just severely out of balance. It’s common for a 1-2 sentence exploration to actually deserves it’s own section. First drafts might contain a handful of these dense, non-obvious nuggets. They’re hidden within 80% bloat. It’s a game of “needle in the haystack.”
  • If you’re sharing a throwaway draft, tell your editor! “I plan to re-write this, but give it a read and let me know the 1-2 themes you’d like me to unpack and focus on.” They won’t obsess over the details, and they’ll help you synthesize instead.
  • Look in between your Google comments. Do you have a streak of paragraphs that have no comments? Were there no sentences that were good or bad enough to comment on? You can’t know for sure how these dry patches are performing, but you can almost always benefit from compression.
  • It can be valuable to duplicate a draft before sharing it so new readers have fresh eyes.
  • We often attempt to compress our essay down to a one-sentence summary to include when we share or distribute. This can be tricky. Through iteration, you can test out a bunch of sentences until you capture the essence. But— you could also “start with the Tweet.” Keep your summary sentence at the top of your doc and adjust it as you go.

Feedback Gym Notes
4/11/22 - 4-5pm ET
Thanks to Cam, Karena, Chris, Swarupa, Ken, Ruben

  • A prompt isn’t something you answer once. Your whole writing portfolio can be based around answering a single prompt over and over. The Profile (a popular newsletter) is basically Polina Pompliano doing the Curation assignment every week. Don’t worry about finding new prompts. You can answer the same 5 Write of Passage prompts again, but in a completely new way.
  • Writers are intimately familiar wit how their own ideas are connected. Readers aren’t. It can be helpful to explicitly tie parts of your essay together. Don’t fear being too blatant or obvious. You can be subtle and nuanced in the details, but be blatant around the core themes of the piece (generally).
  • It’s easy to spot repetitive and bloated language in someone else’s essay. But for our own writing, every word feels precious. We have blindspots. What are some tricks to get around them? Edit your work in a different medium. Print your work and cross things out with a red pen (like Paul Graham). Or, edit on your phone— when you scroll through your essay with your thumb, it makes you feel like a reader.
  • A funny hack to kill your darlings: write your drafts in Comic Sans or other grotesque fonts. Don’t let mediocre words hide behind designer fonts.
  • Weight lifters train in weighted vests. Baseball players swing their bat with a weighted doughnut before they step up to the plate. It makes their bat seem lighter when it matters.. What is the writing equivalent of this?
  • An exercise to try: write for 20-30 minutes with no editing or deleting allowed. If it helps, remove your backspace key, or, use blindfolds. Typos are encouraged. The goal isn’t to have a workable draft. The goal is to only move forward— as fast as you can— letting your mind fire off on associated ideas. Read your draft back— highlight the best 3-5 sentences or ideas worth unpacking— and then delete the rest.
  • A unique role of the editor in a 1:1 feedback session is the power to ask questions. Instead of telling them what you think they should do, you can ask questions. Asking the right question can help them unlock what they’re looking for on their own. If someone is struggling to bring in a personal experience, you can ask them a bunch of  targeted questions to unpack the details of a specific moment in time.
  • You can think of your draft as a series of subconscious answers to fuzzy questions. Look at each paragraph. What question is this an answer to? If you can reduce your whole draft down to a series of questions, you’ll see which questions are missing. By answering those missing questions, you’ll fill in the holes of your essay.

Feedback Gym Notes 4/8/22 - 4-5pm ET
Thanks to Charlie, Juliet, Leo, Cam, Ken, Karaminder, Karena

  • Writing & editing are two different mindsets. If you wait a day or two to revisit your piece, you'll come at with fresh eyes , like an editor on someone else's essay. In your first draft, maybe it's alright to explore a huge range of ideas-- knowing that in 1-2 days, you'll come back with the space knowing the single idea worth taking further
  • Sometimes it can be detrimental to use big section headers too early in a draft. It can prevent us from seeing the granularity & structure of our thinking. The act of "reverse outlining" is about making a bulleted list of all the ideas we covered in a draft. By compressing our draft down to a short outline, it's easier to re-arrange.
  • It can be quicker to re-write full paragraphs than to edit existing ones. Don't delete them immediately. They're helpful to reference as you re-write. Maybe compression is less about filtering and more about synthesis.
  • It's okay to write multiple essays about the same thing. Even if you find yourself writing the same essay every 4 months, each time you're a more mature writer when you approach it. You have control over how your body of writing is presented-- and can always feature the latest and greatest.
  • Cam has an idea for a live event where you get to pitch an idea for 1-2 minutes, and then have 30-50 people or so give their reaction in the chat. It could be really helpful to get ideas out of your head, and to kickstart the process knowing the "temperature" of an idea. This kind of feedback is "high quantity, low depth"-- and as you develop the essay, your feedback shifts into "low quantity, high depth."

Feedback Gym Notes
4/7/22 - 4-5pm ET

  • Sometimes you need to draft 3,000 words to be able to summarize your piece in 3 words, so you can then write a 300 word essay.
  • Ken can run a 5:33 minute mile
  • Cut out filler words. Be careful with phrases like "I think."
  • Before you know the shiny dime, it doesn't make sense to polish sentences.
  • The "phase change method"-- going from text>audio>text, or video>text>video. Temporarily shifting into a medium can help you refine your idea. ie: As you read your essay out loud to a friend, take notice of how you compress, abbreviate, or re-phrase. Record it.
  • Playfulness is often the gap between IRL personality and voice on the page.

Craft

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