Feedback can feel like a very mixed blessing at times. Positive feedback is a delight to receive, while even the most constructive criticism can come as a crushing blow. Writers are particularly susceptible to this, especially novice writers who haven’t yet learned to separate critique of their writing from critique of themselves. I often meet doctoral students who are very reluctant to show their work to their supervisors, fearing criticism because they’re worried that it’s not very good. If it’s a first draft, of course it’s not very good, and a second draft will also contain problems that have to be fixed. Supervisors need to see this work so they can give feedback, which should include information about:
- what you’re doing well,
- what needs improvement, and
- how you can make those improvements.
If any of these elements is missing, ask them to include it in future feedback.
More experienced writers can also struggle with feedback. “Reviewer 2”, referring to an anonymous peer reviewer of an academic journal article, has become a standing joke on social media.
Roses are red, violets are blue, why are you so loathsome, Reviewer 2?
Even when you are really experienced, with a thesis or dissertation, several journal articles, book chapters, and even books to your name, feedback can pack an emotional punch. When you receive feedback (which should be in writing), read it through and give yourself time for emotional as well as cognitive digestion. If anything in the feedback annoys or upsets you, apply self-care: chocolate, a hug from a loved one, walking outdoors, meditation, gardening, exercise – whatever works for you. Then, when you’re ready, read it again and find the key messages.
Here’s some of the feedback from my book proposals:
- The synopsis is quite antagonistic
- This will provide insufficient information to be useful
- The thrust of the book remains unclear
- Chapters 1 and 8 seem to be somewhat repetitive
- It is a bit thin and not complex enough to add anything new
- The proposal covers a wide terrain and is unfocussed
- I think this would be an excellent edited book… the author would benefit from the input… it’s a very broad aim otherwise and may not succeed
- Far greater clarity is needed
- The book will not make a very original contribution
- The writing style is stiff
Luckily there was also a fair amount of positive feedback. Positive feedback is great: it provides much-needed encouragement, and lets you know what you can relax about. But it’s the “Reviewer 2” type comments that really help you improve.
There are three sensible ways to respond to constructive criticism. First, the no-brainer. Chapters 1 and 8 seem repetitive? That’s useful and specific, so I would definitely check those two chapters against each other and remove any unnecessary repetition.
Second, the no-thanks. An edited collection rather than a sole-authored book? I thought that could potentially make the aim even broader, with a bunch of authors jockeying for position. Luckily, my editor agreed.
Third, the oh-wait. The book will not make a very original contribution? I was sure it would, but what this comment told me, crucially, was that I had not communicated the originality of the contribution well enough in my proposal. It is so important to remember that reviewers can be wrong – though if they are, the fault probably lies in your writing. (Not always. Some good scholars are poor reviewers, especially those who are unable to distinguish the piece you are writing from the piece they would write if they addressed the same topic. But usually.) So when you are considering feedback on your writing, don’t always take it at face value. Think about it in the context of your work as a whole, and make a decision. You should certainly take notice if more than one reviewer says similar things. Another reviewer on the same proposal says more clarity is needed. The two comments, together, tell me I have not been clear enough about the contribution I think the book can and will make. That is very useful information because I need the book’s contribution to be perfectly clear by the time of publication, so I and my publisher can communicate it to potential readers. More work evidently needed.
This decision-making can be difficult, and sometimes a second opinion is helpful. Reviewers, too, can be unclear. If you don’t understand what a reviewer is trying to say, it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that they’re cleverer than you and reach for the despair. However, it may well be that they haven’t articulated their point effectively, which unfortunately makes your job harder rather than easier. Sometimes you can go back to them for clarification; it’s fine to do this, even if you have to go through an intermediary such as a journal editor. But it is sensible to check with someone else first, to make sure it’s not a comparatively straightforward point that you’re just missing for some reason.
I always welcome feedback on my writing. I can’t write a book, or anything else for that matter, without feedback from a range of people. Critical feedback doesn’t discourage me, or at least not for long. The only time I’ve had a journal article rejected is when I wrote one for a client; I told them I would need feedback on a draft from a suitably experienced person, and they said someone from their organisation would provide this, but when the time came they said they couldn’t and I should just send in my draft. I was sure that wouldn’t work, and indeed it didn’t. After that I was able to persuade them to find me someone who could offer feedback; their input was very helpful, and the article was accepted by our second choice of journal.
I understand that some people struggle with feedback. I understand why some people struggle with feedback. But honestly, if you’re one of those people, and you want to succeed as a writer, you need to find a way over, through, past, or around that struggle. I hope this post will help, and that you will learn to love Reviewer 2 as much as I do.