Seeing feedback and peer review as a gift rather than a curse

I have been in the fortunate position of sending off five papers recently that I have been working on for the last several months – a mix of single and co-authored work. The upside is that I have lots to report to my postdoc funders and I have learned even more about writing for publication; the downside is that I am going to be receiving a flurry of feedback on these papers within quite a short space of time, and will have to ingest, consider and respond to this feedback like a grown-up. This part I am feeling apprehensive about.

thewritingcampus.comFeedback, as many of us know, is not easy to receive and hear, even when it is positive. Feedback means more thinking, more reading, more writing; in short, feedback almost always points to more work. Most of the time, when you are finished with a paper or a chapter and you send it off you just would like to be done with it. You have other writing to be getting on with and other things to be doing. Yet, the paper or chapter will come back, with comments, suggestions, criticism and critique (although hopefully more of the latter). You, as the writer (on your own or with co-authors), will need to read all the comments and suggestions, probably a few times, note your responses, and then go back into that paper or chapter you would like to be done with and make changes, revise parts of it, do a little more reading, perhaps revisit data analysis, edit long sentences (if you’re me!). It can feel overwhelming, even when the overall thrust of the feedback is positive and the journal wants to publish your work, or your supervisor thinks you are almost there.

Cally Guerin has written about learning to see feedback on your writing as a ‘gift’ – as something that can enrich your thinking and writing, rather than take away from it. I like this idea – about giving and receiving feedback. I try, whenever I see the email in my inbox indicating that an editor has reached a decision on a manuscript I have submitted, or a critical friend has read and commented on my work, to remember this: that they are trying to give me a gift. They are offering me another opportunity to think about and revise my work to make it stronger, clearer and more persuasive and convincing to readers.  Even if the decision is to reject this version of my paper, the peer reviewers are not trying to break me down and make me feel terrible about my writing. Rather, they are offering me their insight as readers who would be interested in reading my paper, and perhaps using it in their own research. They are offering me a way of seeing my own work through their eyes, and comments and suggestions that can help me to clarify vagaries, shorten long sentences, bring out my contribution more firmly and so on.

I know that not all supervisors or peer reviewers use their powers for good: there is much feedback students and writers receive that is criticism, and is hurtful, unkind and unhelpful. But, as a journal editor of a few years’ standing, and a writer who is becoming braver at sending my work out to journals that is now receiving feedback, I can say that most peer reviewers really do want to help you develop your ideas and make your paper even better. Most peer reviewers do see their role as giving writers feedback that is a gift, rather than a curse. I spoke to a colleague recently, for example, who has reviewed many articles and supervised many students, and always asks himself: ‘Is the writing ready to publish/move on from? If yes, is there anything that can be improved further, and if no, why not and how could this writer get there?’ If supervisors and peer reviewers worked with a version of these questions, and I believe many do, they would certainly be offering writers new ways to re-read and revise their own work. The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper
The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper

For me, the challenge is always confronting myself, my own fears, insecurities and beliefs about myself as a researcher and writer. Even when reviewers are positive, I hone in on the negative. I read reviews with fear and trepidation, always prepared for them to say the worst about my writing. I am invariably surprised – even papers that have been rejected have garnered some positive praise, and following the reviewers’ advice tends to build my research up, makes my papers better, and makes me prouder of them and myself. So, I am learning to believe that I have something to say that is of value; that I can make a contribution to my field that people will want to read. It is an ongoing battle, but what I have learned is this: the more you ask for feedback, from the right kinds of people – people who are your readers and would be interested in your work – and the more you work with that feedback to see the strengths and flaws in your writing and develop it further, the easier it gets. Like the Little Engine that could, the more you think you can and try on that basis, the more you can actually accomplish. The writing gets a little less difficult and onerous the more you write, and the feedback gets a little less scary the more you read it, engage with it, and accept it as a gift that will ultimately make you a better writer.

Why are revisions so difficult? or Why is this *@#$ paper not finished!

It may seem, from the title of this post, that this will be an angry post, ranting about revisions and papers that are not done even though you want to be done with them. That is only partly true. There will also be insightful musings on why revisions are just so damn hard to do, and why so many of us put them off, sometimes for too long. I am writing this as pre-revisions therapy of sorts, and my hope is that it will spur me forward (and help some of you to do the same).

I have been talking, for a while now, about a paper I wrote and sent off to a journal at the beginning of the year. After four long months of waiting, the reports came in, and although one was very kind and advised only ‘minor revisions’ the other two had more serious concerns, and asked for much more substantial revisions. I was encouraged to send it back, in a much-changed form. There were some mean and snarky comments in-amongst the helpful and thoughtful advice and suggestions, and these really hurt my feelings. Quite a lot, actually. I am still smarting a little (but then I do tend to take feedback, even the good kind, way too personally). So, the first obstacle to my actually doing the revisions is what Kate Chanock has called emotional static; my hurt feelings and the emotional exhaustion I am anticipating in going back into this paper are interfering with my ability to think more rationally and intellectually about how much stronger the paper will be once I have worked through the more useful and thoughtful comments. I have always battled with this, especially the emotional exhaustion bit. During my PhD when I would get feedback from my supervisor, which was always helpful and never mean, I would open the email, download the file, and then ignore it, too fearful of the further work they would require of me. This is my emotional static, and it really gets in the way of progress in my writing at times.

But, I would eventually get over it enough to open the file, read the feedback, and realise that: a) it actually wasn’t as bad as it had become in my head; and b) the comments were mostly pointing me towards refined thinking and writing that would make the chapter that much more coherent, persuasive and clear. There certainly is some pleasure to be found in refining a piece of work to the point that you do feel more confident sending it out into the wide world for readers to (hopefully) enjoy and be interested in. But, this is also the second obstacle in my revision ‘process’ or procrastinatory mess, more accurately. I don’t feel very confident about these ideas. I believe, mostly, in what I research and write about, but I know that there is opposition to these ideas, and the theory I use, within some of the research and practice communities I am part of. So, I anticipate vociferous criticism and critique, and objections to my claims that I am not sure I will be able to defend. And then I feel squashed and doubtful, and overly anxious, and I haven’t even finished the paper or sent it out to a journal yet! It seems really silly when I write it out like this. But, I suspect I am not alone in this. My challenge, in overcoming this obstacle, is to take my own advice: I need to encourage myself, and believe that I do have something of value to offer through my research. My ideas may well be challenged, but I can actually defend them if I understand that I am not trying to ‘draw a map as big as the country’* but am rather just trying to make connected, smaller arguments that will contribute to thinking about one part of a very complex puzzle in education research. This is useful advice, I think, especially during a PhD when you know you have to just make one argument in the thesis but you really feel like 3 or 4 would be safer, just to cover all your bases and in case someone else gets in there first. One paper/one thesis: one major claim or argument (although obviously a thesis will make this argument in a much more detailed and complex way, given the word limit and purpose differences.)

Finally, my third obstacle is fear. I am afraid that, even after I do all this work (and these revisions will likely be a lot of work) the journal will still reject the paper, and this is quite a high-stakes paper for me as I need to have it accepted to count towards renewing my fellowship for 2016. I really, really don’t want to have to go back to a full-time ‘deskjob’ yet, and so the fear that they will still reject it and I will have to start again and won’t be able to count this and so won’t have my fellowship renewed is proving to be a deceptively big obstacle. I tell myself I really need to just get it done, but then I fill all my time with a hundred other things I just have to do right now or else. I did this during my PhD with chapter and draft thesis revisions too. And deadlines loom and I still carry on creating a procrastinating mess, rather than progress. I honestly cannot tell you why I do this, or how I eventually shame, goad or encourage myself into sitting down and just doing what needs to be done until it’s done. But I do – I have to, I suppose. This is, after all, the career I have chosen, and I totally get that the only person who can get this done is actually me. (No elves coming to help me in the night, sadly).

Part of the point of writing this post before I do these revisions is to get this all out there, for myself, and reflect on what is standing in my way at the moment. And part of the point is also to push myself over these obstacles, even if I feel like I am faking the confidence and lack of fear for the moment. If you are stuck in a similar spot, something like this might help you too – your obstacles may be different, but working out what they are and what resources you have to hurdle them and keep going may give you the encouraging push you need.

*with thanks to Karl Maton for this phrase, and advice.

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.

Getting the feedback you need

Feedback. It’s a prickly issue for writers. We both want it and fear it. It makes us nervous, fearful, tired, annoyed, cheered – sometimes all of these things in one essay/paper/chapter. One of the most helpful things I learned during my PhD was how to ask for feedback – the feedback I needed. This post addresses asking for the feedback you need, even if it isn’t always the feedback you want.

Feedback we need is not always feedback we want, in the sense that often we don’t want to do another tough round of revisions and rewriting and more thinking, because we want to move on to the next thing, or because we are tired, or because the PhD is only one of many things demanding our time and attention. But, more often than not, we need to do this work, and so we need feedback that helps us to achieve this. I am not sure it is possible to always have your needs and wants be the same when it comes to feedback, but the more you go into the scary space of asking for provocative, thoughtful and critical feedback and work with it to have it feed forward into your further writing, reading and thinking, the more you want to get that kind of feedback.

It is so important to work out what kind of feedback you really need and to look for it. PhD students cannot simply wait for the right kinds of feedback to find them, and for supervisors to know what kinds of feedback they are looking for at different points in the process. My supervisor encouraged me to be very directive about what kind of feedback I wanted. I am aware that many supervisors will not do that expressly (or otherwise) but rather than just sending writing and asking broadly what they think, why not suggest to your supervisor when you send them your writing that they focus on specific things, like the coherence of your text, or whether it addresses the research questions, or whether you have read the right kinds of sources for a particular argument you are making. As a new supervisor myself, I think it would be helpful if my student helped me navigate her thinking and writing like this. Supervisors are busy too, and you are often not their only student or task – giving them polite but clear requests for particular kinds of help could well be helpful for them as well as for you.

Asking for specific feedback requires being quite conscious of what you are writing, what you have been thinking about and also struggling with, and what you might need in order to keep moving forward. Making ‘meta-notes’ as you write, either in writing or just in your head, is quite helpful when it comes to then sending that email or having that conversation. These are some of my ‘meta-notes’ on the kinds of feedback I thought I needed on just three stages of my process. This may be helpful if you are battling to put what you need/want from your supervisor into words, and can hopefully help you generate other questions of your own:

Early stages – pre-proposal reading and chunks of writing: ‘Are my research questions valid? Am I addressing them with what I am reading and thinking about? Is this just one PhD or have I got too much here? How could I edit this down if I am trying to do three PhDs in one? What else could/should I be reading?’ 

Proposal writing process: ‘Are my research questions clear, and viable? Is the focus and rationale for this research clear to the reader? Does my proposed conceptual framework hang together and make sense? Does it ‘match’ my research questions. unit of analysis and focus? Is the literature review section where I explain the field I am contributing to well-constructed – can you see the gap my research speaks into? Do my methods seems reasonable; is there a methodology rather than just a list of data and methods of generating it? Are there any glaring errors, like missing references and typos I need to correct?’

Chapter 1 – literature review/conceptual framework: ‘Is this just a collection of things I’ve read or can you hear my voice? How can I make my own stance and voice clearer here? Have I read the field accurately – are there any gaps I need to fill in my reading? Have I explained the way I am using the theory to create a framework for the study clearly – do you see what I am doing and why I have chosen this theoretical framework? Does it connect with my research questions? Are there gaps and where? How would you suggest that I try to address the gaps and revise this chapter?

The worst thing as a writer is sending something to a reader, like a PhD student to a supervisor, and wanting them to really think about your argument and advise you on how to make it stronger or better substantiated, and then getting back a list of typos and grammatical errors you could have corrected yourself just before you are ready to submit the work. It’s frustrating and demoralising, and worse for a student, you can end up stuck and unable to keep writing and thinking as productively as you need to. To get the feedback you need is to see that what you need may be tough to hear, and to act on, but will move you forward if you can engage with it constructively. Seeing feedback in this way will help you to pose the questions to your critical friends and supervisor that ask for particular readings of your work that then result in you receiving more critical, provocative and helpful feedback that really does feed forward into your further writing, reading and thinking.

The feedback you get should be constructive and encouraging even as it critiques, questions and provokes more thinking, and it’s terrible when this is not the case. As I have said before in this blogspace, not all supervisors use their powers for good – many do not perhaps think to put themselves into their students’ shoes, and do not think about what their feedback sounds like, or how useful it is from a student’s perspective. Students getting destructive, unhelpful feedback from their supervisors may need to think about other avenues for getting supplementary help with their writing and thinking, like Chapter Swap online, a PhD writing group or a critical friend or two. There is help out there – but you may have to be brave and resourceful to find it if you are not getting enough of it closer to ‘home’. Good luck!