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Academic Coaching & Writing

VII. How to Get Better Writing Feedback and Make Better Use of It

Apr 30, 2015 by Amy Benson Brown

Most everyone has been through the experience of sharing a draft with someone for feedback, eagerly anticipating the response, and finally receiving comments that are, shall we say, less than constructive.

Select Your Reader

The first step to getting better feedback is carefully selecting the person you ask to read your work. You may find it rewarding to work with a professional writing coach because we are trained to listen closely, read carefully, raise questions, and offer suggestions that align with your own goals. But not everyone is able to sign up to work with a coach. And many academic authors establish effective partnerships with colleagues for exchanging feedback.

Here are a few things to consider when choosing someone to swap manuscripts with for feedback.

The person does not have to be located in your disciplinary subfield. Perhaps the individual is in a related field. Sometimes, getting a perspective from a somewhat different discipline can enrich the way you think about your research and the best way to express it.

The person does not have to be on your campus. In fact, some of the most productive relationships for exchange have sprung up from friendships made in graduate school or relationships formed at professional conferences.

You are not limited to working with just one reader. Perhaps you have a colleague who is, for example, particularly good at assessing the big picture and offering suggestions on the structure of the argument. So, you might ask that person for just that kind of feedback and turn to friend who is excellent at close reading and the craft of writing for feedback on your articulation or phrasing.

It is often a good idea, however, to choose someone with similar goals. Do you have a colleague who is also pushing to finish an article or book with a timeline similar to your own?

And, of course, personality and integrity matter. Pick someone with whom you have a good working relationship and you can really trust.

Finally, the relationship should be a reciprocal one. That, of course, allows both parties to receive feedback. An additional benefit is that by thinking deeply about the craft of someone else’s writing, you often enhance your own understanding of craft and how to address issues in your own work.

Ask for What You Want

Even if you find the most generous, insightful colleague in the world to exchange manuscripts with, you may not get the kind of feedback you want unless you expressly ask for it. There are so many things a reader could potentially focus on when giving feedback. I recommend that you narrow down the job at hand for your reader. When you send your manuscript for feedback, tell the reader the kind of feedback you are looking for. This makes his or her task easier and greatly increases your chance of learning more about areas of your work you are concerned or curious about.

It may feel awkward at first to write a note explaining what kind of feedback you really want. So, here are a few examples of how you might convey what you are looking for to your reader.

  • I’m most interested in whether or not my argument holds together overall. So I’d appreciate your ideas about that. I’m not to the point of polishing my prose yet, so please don’t bother to give feedback on those sorts of issues at this time.
  • I’m curious about whether my introduction works to set up my argument. Is it clear, early on, what this research is about and why it’s significant?
  • Do you have any suggestions for ways I might flesh out the discussion section of this article?
  • I’m wondering how well this manuscript flows. Do you spot any surprising leaps or turns in the argument? Are there places that need more transition between sections?
  • Please let me know places where you had a hard time following my meaning or passages that you had to read several times to get the gist, so I can work on polishing those areas.

Interpret the Feedback

Whether you’re receiving feedback on a draft from several colleagues or peer review related to a manuscript being considered for publication, it’s important to realize that understanding feedback is an act of interpretation in itself.

First, read all the feedback carefully. Pay attention to specific suggestions, but, more importantly, look for patterns. For instance, several readers may point to problems with your conclusion, although each may articulate a different critique of it. Admittedly, that can be a confusing situation. The most significant piece of information there, however, is that the conclusion needs more work.

Take a break after your first reading of the feedback to allow yourself to digest and process it. Then reread it. You’ll likely notice some subtleties you missed at first. Next, mentally sift through the various critiques, realizing that none of the reviewers has the kind of insight into your work that you do. Finally, listen to your own gut about what direction to take in revising that concluding section. For more advice on interpreting peer review feedback, check out Theresa MacPhail’s “Revise and Resubmit” blog series for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae.

Learning how to get better feedback and make better use of it empowers writers and builds their writing efficacy. Like the advice in earlier blogs in this series, good feedback can help you improve your writing.

Grow Your Confidence as a Writer

In concluding this series on growing your confidence as an academic writer, I’d like to stress that you can improve your writing abilities and you can change the way you think about yourself as a writer. In my work with academics, from dissertation writers to tenured faculty writing second books, I’ve witnessed the remarkable strides authors can make in increasing their self-confidence.

Often clients who initially doubt their abilities are afraid their work isn’t good enough. With encouragement, they are able to conquer their doubts and fears. I’m thinking of one author who underestimated her abilities but realized, through coaching, that Harvard University Press was actually the right press to which to submit her book proposal. In every case, my clients’ enhanced confidence and sense of authority have helped them finish the articles, grant proposals, dissertations, and books and build their own track records as authors.

  • Nwaenyi Sochukwuma says:

    Dec 28, 2015 at 11:50 pm

    Useful materials.

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