Tim Ferriss, the author and podcaster, is all about optimizing his performance in every way. His books The 4 Hour Chef (Amazon) and Tools of Titans (Amazon) have helped me tremendously, and when he spoke about his process of acquiring feedback, I knew his approach was tried and true.
In episode 538 of the Tim Ferriss Show, in a casual conversation with author Chris Hutchins, Tim explained how he gathered effective feedback, especially at the early stages of a project.
If you’ve ever asked a friend to read your work and give feedback, you know how stressful, time-consuming, and unproductive that process can be. This is especially true if all you’ve given them is the manuscript and vague instructions like “give me feedback” or “let me know what you think.” Such an experience could cause unnecessary tension between friends.
To avoid that scenario, allow me to share with you Tim’s method for getting clear, succinct, and useful feedback for his writing and interviews.
Break Chapters Into “Self-Sufficient” Pieces That Stand Alone
When writing, Tim makes sure that each of his chapters can stand on its own as a “kind of modular” like a “feature magazine article.”
If you’re writing non-fiction, each of your chapters can be treated like a blog post. If you’re writing fiction, each of your chapters could have a story arc and could be published as a short story.
With each chapter as an individual piece, Tim’s friends and editors only need to read one chapter, instead of a whole book, to have the context necessary to give useful feedback.
Share the Single Chapter with 3-4 Writer or Lawyer Friends
When picking who he would share his work with, Tim usually chooses friends who are writers or lawyers or those who have attended law school. He picks these people because they have the proper training in reviewing text and spotting ambiguity. These professionals also have a keen eye for superfluous details that should be cut.
While you might not have any writer or lawyer friends, who you choose to share your work with still matters. If your friend is not an avid reader or has no interest in your topic or genre, they can’t really help you. Understanding your network and the strengths and weaknesses of the individual is essential because you don’t want to waste time and get frustrated when the person sharing feedback isn’t qualified. In a scenario like that, it might be better to have no feedback at all.
Sharp, observant, and capable of proofreading are qualities you look for in beta readers — and writers and lawyers tend to have those traits
However, getting a diverse sample of feedback is also important. That is why Tim doesn’t only share it with one person, but with four.
Love It Or Hate It, It Can’t Be Confusing
Once Tim has a team of reviewers, he approaches them with one or two asks. For the first, Tim requests:
“Please read this. And if anything is confusing, please note that. You can love it. You can hate it. I’m fine with either of those, but if it’s confusing, it’s no good for anyone. So if anything’s confusing, please note. If your mind starts to wander, please note where that is.”
Whether with audio or text, the goal of the piece is to inform and captivate. If the reader or listener gets bored, distracted, or confused by a certain part, it’s important for Tim to know where that is so he could modify or remove it.
The point is not to get a rave review. The personal taste of the reader doesn’t matter at this point. The goal is to figure out whether it’s useful to anyone, and if it’s unclear or dull, it’s useless.
Ask: Which 20% Should I Cut?
His second and preferred request is to ask: “If I had to cut 20 percent, which 20 percent would I cut?”
Knowing what’s the core and what’s excess is important. This gives you an idea of where you should focus your attention when you’re editing. How concise and succinct can you make it? This forces you to take a closer look at the remaining 80% and examine the substance of your piece.
The thing is, when you ask four people, not all four will have the same opinion. So when a situation like that occurs, Tim has a firm rule.
If 1 Out Of 4 Love It, Keep It
If three people tell Tim to cut out a section, while one person says that they love that section, he will keep it. He does this because something that resonated so strongly with one person is a good enough reason to keep it. If he cut it, it might’ve saved some room, but it would have potentially failed to impact one out of every four people, which is a big percentage.
To cut a part out for the sake of the majority is not how Tim approaches his editing.
You cannot serve everyone, but when you know you can serve someone, serve them!
Don’t Ask For Feedback If You Don’t Plan On Taking It
Lastly, perhaps what I found to be the most important piece of advice, is to not ask for feedback if you don’t plan on using it in some way. If you know you’re not willing to make changes, then why bother taking up someone else’s time?
When Tim received his writer or lawyer friend’s feedback, and the suggestions are valid, he would apply it to his work and improve it.
If you’ve picked the right beta readers, respect their opinions, and trust that they have your best interest, why wouldn’t you keep an open mind? When receiving feedback we need to lose the ego, otherwise, it might be better not to ask for their thoughts at all.
When asking people for feedback, we’re requesting their time and energy. They’re doing us a favor and as such, we should be grateful. That is why I think Tim Ferriss’s process is solid because first, he makes the request digestible. Then he chooses those that are qualified for the job and ensures what he needs is clear. Finally, he prepares for how the feedback will be used so he doesn’t lose sight of the bigger picture, which is to provide captivating and valuable content to the largest group of people possible.
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