Tuesday 31 January 2012

Graduating From Feedback: A Confession by Amy Palko

Peering Statue
Photo by Amy Palko

Ok, here's my confession. I'm kind of 'done' with feedback. Let me explain...

After wading my way through academia for years, I have encountered both good feedback and bad (read soul-crushing) feedback).

My doctoral supervisor was a master at feedback. I used to leave his office after a meeting in relatively good spirits. It would only be 3 days later that it would finally sink in that I had to do a total rewrite, restructure, rethink of my 12000 word chapter. His feedback on my work was always incisive and yet delivered as though it were wrapped in velvet. Never cutting, always kind - I couldn't have achieved my phd without him.

The worst feedback I ever received was on a journal article I'd submitted to an academic publication. In academia, all articles are blind peer reviewed, so two or more reviewers are sent your article and they give detailed feedback to the editor on whether it should be published, and whether any issues need to be addressed prior to publication.

My article was returned to me with both reports attached. One said it was a wonderful, articulate article, well thought out, well structured and well written. They recommended no changes and immediate publication.

The other review was not so favourable.

It seems, according to this anonymous academic, that my article embodied everything they liked least about theoretical prose. They were cruel, sarcastic and when I got to the end of the report - the part where they announced to the editor that they believed that English probably wasn't my first language and a professional editorial overhaul would be needed to make my work fitting for publication - I felt physically sick.

That report taught me some really important, painful lessons…
  1. Anonymity can be a license for cruelty.
  2. The memory of negative feedback sticks around a whole lot longer than positive.
  3. That when delivering feedback, it is always important that you add in a healthy scoop of compassion - especially when it's negative.
Needless to say, perhaps, but the positive balanced out the negative, and the article was published. I could never read it through again though without the words of the second review echoing in my heart, tormenting my bruised ego.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that it took years to claw back any kind of confidence whatsoever in my writing ability. And only now can I present my words to another with the giddy heart of one who is genuinely in love with the work they've just produced.

Since that day, I have had to give a *lot* of feedback on people's writing. I've acted as a reviewer for a number of academic publications, and I have marked more academic essays in my role as university teacher than I could possibly count. For each poorly structured, badly written essay or article, I pointed out the good as well as the bad, and gave clear ways to remedy the situation.

But, like I said at the top of this post, I'm done with feedback. Apart from a very short stint of 4 weeks next summer, I'll no longer be working in a university. Now, I'm free to create, to write, to be any way I choose. The feedback I received as a student and as an academic helped me successfully jump through hoops whose circumference and height had been decreed by others. I don't have to perform for them any more. And I don't need to coax others into conforming to this standard either.

Nowadays, the most important person to give feedback on my writing, my art, my presence, is me.

This isn't to say that I don't care what others think - not in the slightest! But it does mean that I'm no longer willing to shape and colour my expression in the world according to the preferences of another.

I've finally learned to trust my voice. And I'm giving hoops the heave-ho!

A true lover of stories, Amy Palko spends her days reading, writing, knitting and dreaming… well, that is when she's not being kept busy home-educating her three kids! She is the creatrix behind Virgins & Lovers: Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Goddess, a more-than-just-an-e-book to support your exploration of the goddess myths through story, journalling, visualisation and creative exercise, the knitter of soulskins, and the provider of Goddess Guidance.

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