When sharing writing is not giving to get feedback

When is sharing writing not giving to get feedback?  How—in what ways can this happen?  Why? These questions arose for me after a discussion among graduate students at the early stage of a research and writing process.  To initiate the discussion I had read the quote below from Peter Elbow on sharing and giving. Clearer framing was needed, however, given that the subsequent discussion mostly centered on bad and good experiences or attitudes in getting and receiving feedback on writing.

The essential human act at the heart of writing is the act of giving. There’s something implacable and irreducible about it: handing something to someone because you want her to have it; not asking for anything in return; and if it is gift of yourself… risking that she won’t like it or even accept it. Yet though giving can sound rare and special.., it is of course just a natural and spontaneous human impulse.
This central act of giving is curiously neglected in most writing instruction. Otherwise people would have shared their writing—just given it to another human being for the sake of mutual pleasure—as often as they gave it to a teacher for evaluation and advice. For most people, however, the experience of just sharing what they have written is rare… (Elbow 1980, 20-21)

The rest of the chapter from which this quote was taken is worth reading for the additional insights it provides, e.g., “to write with clarity and power requires an essential act of taking full responsibility for your words—not hedging, holding back, being ambivalent” (p. 22).  But it also leaves us with puzzles, e.g., asking a writer to take full responsibility has a different feel from doing something “for the sake of mutual pleasure.”

A wikipage I wrote about sharing writing five years ago (and only came across as I searched the web for the quote above so I wouldn’t have to retype it!) mixes together sharing and giving to get feedback, but it includes the following passage that seems relevant to the issue of mutuality:

To cite Elbow’s passage is not to discount the need for feedback and advice. It is simply to suggest that responses can be elicited and offered from a place of mutual respect—and self-respect—for the person doing the writing. Respect helps provide a basis for taking risks (and minimizing fear that obstructs access to our full intelligence), for clarifying and extending our thinking, and for engaging with the challenges involved in questioning, understanding, and communicating (see the snapshot on the 4Rs in Teaching and Learning for Reflective Practice.)

So, when is sharing writing not giving to get feedback?  Perhaps, when the climate is one where giving and receiving a “gift of ourself” is to be expected as part of our sense of being alive.   How—in what ways do we create such a climate?   For a start, we can point aspirationally to such a climate.  Why? Because we want to live with the expectation every day that we can give and receive a “gift of ourself” is to be expected as part of our sense being alive.

OK, these answers are not very concrete.  But I hope they nudge us to keep hold of the possibility of sharing as giving in the sense of gifts given and received in contrast with giving in the sense of handing over so the receiver provides feedback. Your thoughts?


Elbow, P. (1981). Writing with Power. New York: Oxford University Press.
Taylor, P. (2010). “Sharing of Work to Elicit Responses” http://cct.wikispaces.umb.edu/SharingForResponse (viewed 7 Oct 15)
Taylor, P. & J. Szteiter (2012). “Four R’s of developing as a collaborator,” in Taking Yourself Seriously. Arlington, MA: The Pumping Station, http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/TakingYourselfSeriouslyTLRP.html#Snapshot6 (viewed 7 Oct 15)


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

One Response to When sharing writing is not giving to get feedback

  1. fmindlin says:

    Lovely conundrum you’re posing. I can see among a group of dissertation writers how the “gift” part might seem at several removes. As an elementary school teacher using Writer’s Workshop and Author’s Chair, these are natural parts of an authentic writing program, the giftings, and acknowledged as such. Also it’s a long-standing part of the National Writing Project’s culture to take some time to write silently together at every gathering, and save time for sharing if anyone asks. For the upper elementary grades, I’ve used “Bless, Press, or Address?” as a framework for the author setting guidelines for feedback, meaning, Only positive comments, Give me all you’ve got, and I’ve got a problem with just this part, respectively.

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