Feedback: What’s helpful at different stages of a creative project?

Originally published January 19, 2012, at Creative Dream Journals.

Valuable feedback

For me, valuable feedback comes from people who are totally on board with what I want to do and just want to help me do it. This is the kind of feedback I try to give to other writers. I think of myself as on the writer’s side—their ally—and my goal is to figure out what they’re trying to do and help them do it.

The contrast—feedback that isn’t that helpful to me—comes from people who position themselves as challengers. Sometimes, challengers might question the value of the project or disagree with the way I’m thinking about it. Other times, their feedback might be along the lines of “Why don’t you do what I want you to do, or what I find valuable, or what I would do if it was my project, or what I’m used to seeing from other writers?”

When I’m working on a creative project, I’m interested in developing it, not altering it to be something different. Just like a person—human beings are better off when you support them as they more fully become their own unique, amazing selves.

Feedback at the beginning of a project

In the beginning stages of a creative project, I’m very very selective about who I seek feedback from. A new original project is like a little sprout making its way up from the ground, powerful with potential, but vulnerable. It needs warmth and care and time to grow solid and strong. In the early stages, the only feedback that’s helpful to me is “What a cool idea; here are some possible resources for you.”

At the beginning, a project is really between me and me. There’s something I’m trying to figure out and develop within my own mind and spirit. My engagement with the outside world is all about exploration—taking things in that help me learn. The feedback that matters is internal: What’s speaking to me? What feels promising? What’s drawing my attention? What do I see in the outside world that resonates with what I’m trying to figure out?

Feedback at the end of a project

The moment I’m in right now is the end stage of a project. I have a book that I started long ago, and I’m fortunate to have a publisher for it; now my job is to finish writing and revising it for publication.

At this stage, I know what I want to say, my ideas are solid and well-formed, and the project is fully fleshed out. I’ve learned what I wanted to learn, I know what I think, and I’m confident about it. Now, the project is to communicate what I’ve learned and what I think to other people.

At this stage, feedback feels like collaboration. I’ve been honing this project mostly on my own, and now other people are invested in it. My editor, and the press he represents, have years of experience and expertise in helping books reach readers—helping people communicate. So when he tells me, “I think you should make x, y, and z changes,” a little voice inside me says, “I don’t want to. It’s my project, and I like it as it is.” But a stronger voice now says, “I want to communicate. I want to reach my audience. And this person has ideas about how I can do that effectively. Excellent!”

Communication isn’t the same as self-expression. Communication is about reaching people, and it’s cooperative. The image in my head is an equation: feedback = audience. My editor is representing a particular audience, a particular set of people who we both hope will buy and read my book. To communicate with my readers, I have to think about where they’re at, and how I can share my ideas with them in a way that they will find compelling.

I still hold on to the core of my vision. It’s almost impossible not to at this point, because the book has grown up into something solid—it has its own reality now. But it’s solid enough now to interact with the outside world, and that means conversation and relationship. Now, feedback means that I’m connecting, I’m communicating, I’m reaching other people. And in the end (but maybe only in the end) that’s what I want my creative work to do.

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