Getting Feedback: Diagnosis and Remedy Are Different Things

In my article on lessons learned from publishing a book, I write about the process of getting feedback on the manuscript:

Here’s my big lesson on how to get helpful help. Remember when Reid asked his friends whether the manuscript was great? The value judgment great / not great is helpful to know whether you are finished. We thought we were close to finished, but in fact we were not. That was a helpful part of the feedback process.

But once we realized we had more work to do, hearing whether someone thought it was great or not great – whether they liked it or didn’t like it – was not usefulWhat’s helpful is how you actually make the text better regardless of whether they like the current version or not. As Tim Harford suggested to me, if you know you have work to do on the manuscript, just ask someone for one or two tips to make it better. Focus their mind exclusively on practical, actionable specific changes you can make to improve it.

Tucker Max emailed in with the following observation about gathering editorial feedback: “When people say that something is wrong, they are almost always right. When they tell you how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” Exactly the case in our experience, and an excellent point in general.

Being able to identify that something’s not working — be it in writing or in any other context — is separate from identifying how to actually fix it. Problem vs. solution. To offer a good solution, you have to understand the problem. But just because you understand the problem does not mean you have a good solution.

2 comments on “Getting Feedback: Diagnosis and Remedy Are Different Things
  • Totally agree. A related anecdote: In the months leading up to the healthcare bill, Atul Gawande for the New Yorker and David Goldhill for the Atlantic had phenomenal articles detailing what was wrong with the US healthcare system. Both pieces were great analyses, but at the end, they threw in half-baked ideas in the final few paragraphs about how to fix the problem. There’s a large asymmetry between identifying the problem and fixing it. The prior is usually necessary, but not nearly sufficient, for the latter.

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