Using my CRIBS system, the average person can give excellent writing feedback.
The acronym stands for: confusing, repeated, interesting, boring, surprising.
Feedback is useful because we are blind to our own ideas. We struggle to separate good ones from bad ones or determine when they’re unclear. But when we ask friends for feedback, they’re not helpful. If they’re trying to be nice, they’ll shower you with compliments and superficial critiques which means your writing won’t improve. Sometimes, they’ll bash your writing which makes you feel worthless and dejected.
CRIBS turns anybody into an editor because it focuses on the emotions of your reader instead of the mechanics of writing. Together, the observations follow the MECE principle from consulting: mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. Every emotion comes with an obvious next step, which I’ll explain below.
Confusing: Communication is the essence of writing. Effective writing happens when ideas are efficiently transferred from the writer’s brain to the reader’s. But confusing writing, which happens when the author tries to sound smart or doesn’t think clearly about what they’re trying to say, slows the transmission of knowledge.¹
Next step: If your writing is confusing because you’re trying to sound smart, replace your SAT words with ones that everybody understands. Alternatively, it may be proof that you haven’t thought enough about what you’re trying to write. If so, clarify your ideas by simplifying them.
Repeated: Good writing is concise. By definition, if you’re repeating yourself, your writing isn’t as concise as it could be. Repeating the same ideas is the writing equivalent of your mom telling you something you already know, over and over again. It’s a self-insult too because when you repeat yourself, you’re effectively saying: “I expressed myself so poorly the first time that I have to say the same thing again.”
Next step: Delete the repetitive parts.²
Interesting: “Interesting” is the holy grail of online writing. It happens when insight meets entertainment, when you comfort the confused or confuse the comforted. By asking your editor to identify the most interesting sections, you’ll receive compliments that sustain your momentum and know where to double down.
Next step: Add prominence to your interesting ideas by writing more about them.
Boring: Readers have a zero-tolerance policy for boredom. They’ll click away once your writing becomes boring, but if you can keep them engaged, they’ll give you hours of their attention. Ask your editor to tell you which sections they wanted to skip or caused their mind to wander.
Next step: When something is boring, delete or rewrite it. The answer depends on if your writing is boring because of the ideas themselves or how you’re communicating them. If the idea is the problem, cut it. Or, if your delivery is the problem, rewrite the boring sections.
Surprising: Your job as a writer is to surprise your reader by telling them things they didn’t know and didn’t expect. Ideas that are new but not surprising are trivial. In contrast, surprising ideas break the reader’s mental model for how the world works, either by comforting the confused or confusing the comforted.
Next step: Delete everything that’s not surprising. Then pretend you’re a horror movie director by building suspense before every surprise.
CRIBS works as well with speaking as it does with writing because all the included emotions are easy to identify in people’s facial expressions: people raise their eyebrows when they’re confused, ask you to speed up when you repeat yourself, lean in when they’re interested, turn away when they’re bored, and gasp when they’re surprised. By paying attention to how people respond to your ideas in casual conversation, you can develop your ideas before you sit down to type them.
¹ Straussian techniques are an important nuance but beyond the scope of this article. Leo Strauss is the forefather of Straussian writing. He wrote in obscure ways so average readers would miss his fundamental points, while intelligent readers could see the truth. He observed how authors in speech-restricted societies used to conceal their ideas in unpopular characters such as devils, beggars, and buffoons.
² There are stylistic reasons for repeating yourself, but those beyond the scope of this essay. Repetition can help you prove a point.
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