Working with feedback: on criticism and critique

Hands up: who actually likes critique and criticism of their writing? So few hands? How strange :). I think we all know that critique on our writing is something we have to expect: if we are writing for an audience, especially one expected to be critical such as PhD examiners or peer reviewers, the critique will come whether we want it or not. Often, though, critique is something we fear (even if we also know that good critique is good for our thinking and writing). I don’t know a single writer – student or otherwise – who has not seen an email from an editor or supervisor that contains feedback and immediately said ‘Yay! Critique!’ Most students I know, myself included, have seen those emails and first had a swooping sort of sensation of anxiety or apprehension in the belly before deciding whether to open now, or later; read now, or later. How do you deal with criticism and critique of your writing? How do you take on what helps, leave what doesn’t, and move forward with your writing and thinking?

Perhaps a good starting point would be to differentiate between criticism and critique. Learning about the differences can shape our responses as writers in helpful ways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

These two definitions, helpfully provided by Google, are a useful starting point. You can see that criticism is defined as fault-finding or censure in the first instance, even though in the second it is defined as analysis, evaluation and judgement. This overlaps with the definition of critique which is defined as assessment and analysis done in a ‘detailed and analytical way’. A further definition you can source goes on to argue that critique is understood thus:

I like this more fleshed out understanding of critique as a ‘method of disciplined…analysis’ that is not only negative, but finds merit as well, and is concerned with ‘doubt’. I think this speaks rather well to what we do when we read the work of others – we are not ‘sure’ that the writer is right or wrong, or that we are right or wrong in our assessment; rather we read with a measure of doubt so that we can, analytically and evaluatively, assess the argument being made and the evidence being presented in support of that argument on its merits, and in relation to the field of research (and often to the research we are doing). We do this when we read the literature that helps us scope the field and find a space for our project; we do this when we read as critical peers to offer feedback (whether formally or informally); and we should be mindful of this as the way readers will (hopefully) approach what we write.

Notwithstanding that examiners and peer reviewers can sometimes be rather nit-picky, petty and unhelpful in their feedback, I believe many academics who will be tasked with commenting on my writing will understanding this definition of critique, and will assess my work with a view to pointing out both the merits and faults. They will hopefully be peers who have the interests of the field of research and practice at heart, rather than their own narrow stakes in that field, and as such will offer feedback that will help me improve my writing, develop my thinking, and make a more valuable, critical and thoughtful contribution to that field. I have had both mean and helpful feedback on my writing so far, and to be honest, the helpful has far outweighed the mean. A brief inquiry to colleagues and friends has yielded a similar finding (although anecdotal) so if you have not yet been exposed to much external feedback on your writing, be warned that some reviewers are mean, but also be encouraged that most actually do have the interests of the field and you as a contributor to it at heart when they review your work.

So, when you get the critique (and sometime the first instance of criticism) what do you do? How do you respond? I am going to write in a follow-on post about formally responding to reviewers and examiners, so here I want to just touch on two thoughts:

– Firstly, you have to give your feelings – all of them – space to breathe and be felt. Any critique that point to errors, missteps and the need for more reading, thinking and revision will be hard to read or hear, and it’s very easy to focus only on what the reviewers/supervisors don’t like, rather than also looking at what they do like in your writing. You may well feel hurt, angry, confused, disheartened and rejected. You might feel stupid, or lost, or filled with self-doubt. This is all completely par for the course. No one likes the negative critique, even if (as some of my more experienced colleagues tell me) you get more used to it, and it hurts less, the more you publish. Feel the crappy feelings, but don’t over-indulge them to the point where you start sinking into a mire of despair and writing-abandonment.

– Secondly, you should have back-up: willing and supportive colleagues, fellow writers, friends who can help you to process the feedback in constructive ways. Choose people who have some knowledge of the kind of writing your are doing, and the purpose of it, and share your feedback with them. If you need to vent, vent, but then also use them as a sounding board for your initial and then more considered responses. What do the reviewers mean by this comment? Why am I being asked to do this? Do you think I can ignore that, and how should I defend myself to the editors and reviewers? How should I revise this chapter/section of the paper? And so on. Kamler and Thomson have written about the usefulness of having a ‘publication broker’ to help you work through reviews and revisions, and this is a good idea (especially if you are new to writing for publication or for external review).

I’ll stop here for now, and address responding to reviewers in the next post in more detail. But if I can sum up so far: working with criticism, especially at an earlier stage in your career as a writer and academic, is bloody hard work. It’s emotional as well as intellectual work, and I think finding space to be emotional, but not let the feelings of hurt and inadequacy get in your way of the intellectual work and progress is essential in turning the criticism into critique, and the faults, errors and missteps into opportunities for learning and growth.

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Publishing during or after the PhD: putting yourself out there now or later?

Publishing your work is tough. Putting yourself out there in terms of sharing your ideas with your colleagues and peers can be as scary as it is exciting. I think this is especially the case for PhD scholars and early career researchers who are still finding their research niche, their voice, confidence in their ideas and writing. In this post I’d like to try and tease out some of the issues that could be involved in deciding to publish during your PhD, or wait until your thesis is finished to start composing papers and sending them out to journals for consideration.

Let’s start with publishing during the PhD: first, let me say that if you are first-authoring or only-authoring a paper and sending it to a journal before your PhD is completed, I am in awe of you. I could not have done this – not least because I have no idea where I would have found the time. It was more a case of the Fear. Fear that my research had actually already been published in a paper I just had not found and read; Fear that my ideas were actually awful, or derivative, or boring, or just ridiculous. Fear that I would be rejected, and that the self-doubt this would create would spill over into my PhD and derail my progress. I am not sure the Fear will ever really leave me – critical self-doubt may well be part and parcel of being an academic writer keen on growing and developing their ‘crafts’ – but I do have a sense that putting my work out there will get easier, and be more exciting rather than scary on the whole.

If you are publishing during the PhD, there may be a limited range of papers you could write, depending on how far along in your research process you are. If, for example, you have not generated data yet, it would be difficult to write a more empirical paper, where you use your data, analysed, to support your case or claims. You could perhaps write a ‘critical literature review’ (for example, Robotham & Julian, ‘Stress and the higher education student: a critical review of the literature) which reviews the literature you have read that relates specifically to the research you are doing, but that takes a critical stance in terms of pointing to alternatives, gaps and spaces for other kinds of, new, or different research in this research area. You could write a paper exploring part of your own research process, from a methodological point of view, or in terms of critically reflecting on parts of the research process (not a personal narrative, but something that would be of use to other researchers in terms of helping them reflect on their own process too; for example Ortlipp, ‘Keeping and Using Reflective Journals in the Qualitative Research Process’). You could write these papers post-PhD, too, of course – but during the PhD you’d need to think quite carefully about where you are in the process, and what you would want to say to your professional or research community at that point.

If you are publishing post-PhD, the range of papers you could write widens, of course, because you now may well have a large data set you can draw on – either data that made it into the PhD, or data you had to put aside for reasons of focus and scope. You can write probably 2 or 3 empirical papers (for example, Coleman, ‘Incorporating the notion of recontextualisation in academic literacies research: the case of a South African vocational web design and development course’; Mckenna, ‘The intersection between academic literacies and student identities : research in higher education’). These papers would likely be more ‘traditional’ journal articles, in the sense that they will look and sound a lot like many of the papers you will have read and still be reading. Using the papers you are reading as ‘models’ or guides for the papers you want to write, fresh out of a PhD, can be really helpful. You can look at what your peers, colleagues and academic ‘heroes’ are writing about, and connect with their arguments, methodologies, conceptual issues, and join these conversations in a more deliberate and careful way. This is really highly recommended, because joining ongoing conversations in your field deliberately and with a fresh voice, perspective and argument, can increase your chances of eventually publishing your work.

I don’t have any definitive opinion on publishing during or after the PhD: I do wish I had published at least one paper about my PhD research towards the end of the process or just after I completed my thesis, as I think it would have got my post-PhD publishing off to a more confident start. However, I had more than enough to do holding down a job, completing my thesis and taking care of my family and my own health. I think this is probably the case for lots of part-time PhD students – writing for a thesis and writing for an article are different, and when you are consumed with one kind of writing, doing the other as well as this, and as well as everything else, can seem like just one thing too many to do. If, however, you do have an idea for a paper that you think could be fleshed out, and can see how writing the paper would help, rather than hinder, your PhD thinking and writing, I would say ‘go for it!’ Give it a try, ask for help from supervisors and critical friends, and be brave. If you just can’t, for whatever reason, publish until after your PhD is finished, don’t fret that you’re ‘behind’. The point of doing a PhD is to do a PhD, rather than to publish papers (unless your PhD is by or with publications, of course). There will be time, after, to write many papers, and do many revisions of these papers, and move your research into new areas of inquiry as your career grows and changes.

Putting yourself out there as often as possible, in polished and well thought-out papers and chapters, is tough, but I think I’m realising it’s also the only way I’m going to get braver, become a better, more educated thinker and writer, and find the exciting over the scary in publication. When and how you choose to do it is up to you, but whenever and however you do choose to do it, thinking in terms of ‘publish and flourish’ (to paraphrase a colleague) rather than ‘publish or perish’ is a more positive way to begin.