Getting feedback on your writing can feel like a blow to the solar plexus. I am not entirely sure why, but writing—even writing on the sleep patterns of drosophila or the social rules governing office politics—feels personal. Coping with feedback on our writing demands both editorial and affective skills.
Getting feedback is a normal and even central part of academic work. Anyone writing a dissertation or submitting work for publication will go through round after round of feedback and response. The more we’re able to understand, anticipate, and work with our response, the easier it is to move through reaction and into action.
Understand Your Own Response Process
Just as there are stages of grieving, I suspect that everyone has stages of dealing with feedback. If I had to name a yoga position for my first stage of responding to feedback, I might call it “backward leaning mule.” In other words, I tend to assume a defensive posture, at least initially—ears back, hooves planted. I often read feedback and then leave it alone for a few days, grumbling to myself.
In the second stage, the mule gets hungry, resistance settles down, and curiosity gets the better of me. What did the feedback really say? For this stage, I need to clear space in my calendar and in my head in order to really “hear” the feedback. In this stage, I am aware of the nuances, the requests, and the tensions if there is more than one reviewer.
The third stage involves reentering the work itself and rereading it through the lens of the reader. This is where I begin to see, “Oh yes, I wasn’t clear there” or “Actually, I did explain that.” What I begin to see is that my work isn’t perfect, but neither are my readers’ perceptions. After all, they are seeing my work through the lens of their own preoccupations and agendas. This is where I begin to reengage with the work and to respond to the feedback.
In the fourth stage I am able to use the distance from the original version to have new insights, see what the piece needs, and respond to feedback on the macro level. Sometimes the piece changes in ways that make the feedback less relevant.
What are the stages of your response process? I encourage you to write them down, describing each one in as much detail as possible. Maybe there is a pattern there that you’ve never noticed. Maybe you get stuck in the resistance stage and have a hard time reengaging. Or maybe you reengage too fast without stopping to really reflect and consider what parts of the feedback you want to accept and reject. Whatever your typical response, examine it, make room for it, budget for it.
Apparently the human mind comes standard with something called negativity bias, which predisposes us to hear negative information amplified and positive information muffled. I had the chance to observe the intersection between writing feedback and negativity bias recently when, in preparation for giving a faculty development workshop on thesis advising, I unearthed the binders containing my own college papers, complete with the original red ink. What I found there surprised me. To begin with, my freshman writing was better than I expected—making it clear to my adult self that my presence at that private college was not, as my freshman self believed, a clerical error. I also found that my professors’ feedback was, objectively speaking, overwhelmingly positive—belying my long-held conviction that my professors had been deeply critical of my work. Their corrections and suggestions had loomed so large as to blot out all positive input.
I have no way to establish that negativity bias is more intense in those who experience imposter syndrome, but it is certainly possible that those who feel insecure about their belonging or worthiness may perceive critical feedback as confirmation that they don’t belong, rather than as proof that they do.
Check yourself for negativity bias. Make sure you read the feedback for positives as well as negatives. If your brain has trouble “hearing” the positives, read them out loud or have someone read them to you. Also remember that professors and reviewers may not bother to say much about the things you are doing right because they barely have time to address what needs to improve. But don’t be afraid to ask: “What is working?”
Rather than lump all negatives together, try to parse them. Is someone saying that your overall work is important, but needs to be better organized? That’s very different from saying your work is fundamentally flawed.
Most importantly, question the stories you are telling yourself about the meaning of the feedback (that you are not good enough, that you are a bad writer, that you will never finish your thesis, get published, get a job, etc.).
When Feedback Collides
If you are dealing with a thesis committee or multiple blind reviewers, you will encounter the moment where one feedback-giver says, “Expand this section,” and the other says, with equal conviction, “Take this section out.” This is one of those moments of human comedy that can border on despair. You want to finish your dissertation or get published. What to do?
Seek clarity from without. If this happens in the context of a thesis committee, you can ask your thesis advisor to help you navigate the conflicting feedback, although there’s a good chance that your advisor’s feedback is part of the issue. It’s always good to consider the power and the politics of the situation. Would it make more sense to follow the feedback of your dissertation director or another committee member? Is there a middle path that would allow you to integrate both?
You can also go back to your feedback-givers and discuss the feedback. Getting an oral version of their feedback can give you a different perspective on its relative importance. Giving written feedback is a challenging art, and people’s written comments may not accurately reflect their actual impressions and priorities.
If you are getting conflicting perspectives from reviewers at a journal, you cannot necessarily turn to someone from the journal to help you adjudicate, but you can approach a faculty member or peer for a second opinion. In addition, you may want to suss out something about the readers: What can you tell about each person’s intellectual commitments? Perhaps you can sense that someone’s stance seems outdated or based on things you do not believe. In this case, you might choose to honor feedback from the reader whose position seems most similar to yours. You could also try to discern which reader’s feedback seems more in keeping with what you see in that journal’s current issues.
Seek clarity in yourself. Ultimately, you are the one who has to live with your work, and it needs to represent your ideas. You could decide that you simply agree with one set of feedback and go with that. Or you could work to combine elements of both. Realize that you will probably never satisfy all of your readers.
No matter what you choose, I encourage you to write a rationale for how you chose to respond (or not respond) to each piece of feedback. You can include this with a resubmit letter or use it in responding to your committee’s feedback.
Tracking Feedback and Revisions
Many editors ask that you track and explain edits during the revise-and-resubmit process, and I suggest that you do this in your thesis process as well. This will make it easy for everyone to refer back to specific comments and revisions.
Divide feedback into local and global feedback. Local feedback deals with the sentence or paragraph level. Often faculty will mark these issues on hard copy or using Track Changes in Word. Most often, you can respond to these issues within the text itself.
Global issues deal with thematic, organizational, or other meta-level issues. Global feedback is often given at the end of the text in paragraph form. If this is the case, try to separate out and number each discrete comment or request in a table (see below). As you respond to each point, jot down the page number where the change occurs and a brief description of the feedback. You may want to note the page in the original version and the new version.
|Reader’s Global Comments||Your Resulting Edits (note the page)|
Color Code Your Edits
Make a to-do list
(Ex: change margins, look up citations, create a running head)
One of the best uses of advising time is going over previous feedback and asking for elaboration or clarification. A comment like “confusing” or “elaborate” can mean a lot of things. Show your advisor your proposed revisions to see if they are on track. Having your faculty member talk you through the feedback will give you a much richer sense of what he or she is looking for. Even an editor may entertain questions, if they are specific and intelligent.
When you get a draft back with feedback, copy and label it clearly rather than starting to make edits on that version. Make sure to include the name of the feedback-giver and the date in the file title so that you can always find the most recent feedback and tell whom it came from. This is especially important for students who are dealing with committee members.
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Image credit: Graffito, Reed College Library, Women’s Bathroom, Main Floor, 2015 / Oregon coast