How To Give Feedback On Academic Writing – Twelve Top Tips

feedback peopleA recent discussion on Facebook reminded me that I’ve written about how to deal with feedback from reviewers, but I haven’t written about how to give feedback to peers and colleagues. There is an art to this which I have learned, paradoxically, from receiving feedback, which taught me what helps and what does not help.

Feedback is a fairly neutral word but what we’re actually dealing with is criticism. Some people call it ‘critique’ to make it sound better but it’s still criticism. Criticism is not neutral and so it has lots of emotion attached.

In the last decade I joined a closed online short story writing group of around a dozen fiction writers. We all knew each other online through blogging and wanted to improve our writing. The idea was that we would each write and share a story once a fortnight. The stories were posted anonymously by one of the group – we took turns – and the others would give feedback. To begin with we only gave positive feedback until one of us pointed out that we weren’t going to get very far that way. We were a bit scared about being more critical, but gradually our feedback became more robust, with honesty about the elements of each story that didn’t work for us and why, as well as praise for the parts that did and suggestions for how to overcome weaknesses. We built up a lot of trust in that group and it helped us to give better feedback and so become better writers.

This experience taught me that trust is important to effective feedback. In the group we built trust over time. If you’re writing an anonymous peer review, you need to create trust all at once.

Another thing that is important is blending praise where possible, or at least advice, with your criticism. I had a review for the typescript of my last book which was entirely critical. Essentially, it said the book was rubbish and should never be published. The reviewer is entitled to their opinion, and I have been a writer for far too long to be upset by critical feedback, but the problem was that the review gave me no help at all. There was nothing in it which I could use to improve my writing. (Luckily I had two other reviewers at that stage who took a more balanced approach and did give me constructive criticism, advice, and some praise.)

So, from all my years of experience of receiving and giving feedback on writing in several genres, here are my twelve top tips for giving good quality feedback that others will trust.

  1. Be honest in all the feedback you give.
  2. Read the piece you’re giving feedback on carefully, thoroughly, at least twice.
  3. While you read, make notes of thoughts that occur to you. As a minimum, these should include: aspects of the work you think are good; where you think there is room for improvement; anything you don’t understand; references the author might find helpful.
  4. Be sure to praise the good points in the author’s work. This helps to build trust and also lets the author know what they can relax about.
  5. Be open about anything you don’t understand. Doing this worries some people because they think they may look stupid, particularly if they’re giving feedback to a peer or colleague rather than writing an anonymous review. But it’s really helpful feedback for writers because it may be that they haven’t written clearly enough.
  6. Give a straightforward assessment of areas where you think there is room for improvement.
  7. Tell the author how you think they can improve their work. This is crucial. If you’re only saying where improvement is needed, you’re only doing half the job.
  8. Where relevant, suggest references the author has missed.
  9. If you think extra references would be helpful but nothing specific springs to mind, have a quick look on a website such as Google Scholar or the Directory of Open Access Journals and see if you can find something to point the author towards.
  10. Don’t worry if you can only offer a certain amount of help because of the limits to your own knowledge. It’s fine to say, for example, that a quick online search suggests there is more relevant literature in the area of X; you’re not certain because X lies outside your own areas of interest but you think it would be worth the author taking a look.
  11. Acknowledge the author’s emotions. For example, after giving quite critical feedback, you might say something like, “I realise that implementing my suggestions will involve a fair amount of extra work and this may seem discouraging. I hope you won’t be put off because I do think you have a solid basis here and you are evidently capable of producing an excellent piece of writing.” (Though remember #1 above and don’t say this if it’s not true.)
  12. Be polite throughout, even if your review is anonymous. Anonymity is not an excuse for rudeness.

If there’s anything I’ve missed, please add it in the comments.

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Is Peer Review Bad For Your Mental Health?

peer review peopleI am currently waiting for peer reviews of two books I’ve worked on: one sole-authored, one co-authored. We don’t talk much about the experience of waiting for reviews, and it’s not something that appears to have been researched. Yet it’s something everyone doing academic work has to go through and it may be bad for our mental health.

I’m finding it particularly difficult at the moment because a lot rides on these reviews. The sole-authored book, which is on a contentious topic, has already had one set of reviews. Reviewer 1 was utterly damning, saying ‘I couldn’t find anything to praise’. Luckily, reviewers 2 and 3 were more measured, offering both praise and constructive criticism, and their input helped me to revise and strengthen the typescript. However, in the process, my editor and I realised that we needed further reviews from people with a particular kind of specialist knowledge. My editor approached around 10 potential reviewers, but only one agreed to do the job. So I’m gibbering – what if that person agrees with Reviewer 1?

The co-authored book is in a contentious format. My co-authors and I decided that I would be the person to liaise with publishers, as I have form in this process. The last time I liaised with academic publishers for a co-authored book was in the early 2000s, and I’d forgotten how heavily responsible it makes me feel. Fortunately, I’ve found a publisher that is interested and has sent the book out for reviews, to two professional academics and two students. This is great – and terrifying – but at least there are four reviewers. Even so, what if they ALL think it’s rubbish?

In many ways I love the peer review system. I welcome feedback on my writing, and I’m not at all averse to constructive criticism. I am by no means arrogant enough to think I can write a good book without input from others. Yet peer review, as a process, is fraught with uncertainty. Comments may not be constructive, or may not come at all. They may be positive, or negative, or in between, or a mixture.

There is a body of research which demonstrates that uncertainty has a detrimental effect on mental health. Luckily for me, my mental health is fairly robust right now, so I can use this period of uncertainty as an opportunity to build further resilience. But what about those who aren’t so fortunate? We’re hearing a lot about the mental health crisis in higher education, but nobody seems to be talking about the potential contribution of the peer review system to this crisis. Given the evidence of links between uncertainty and mental health, it seems likely that there may be a relationship here.

I’m not arguing that we should tear down the peer review system and replace it with something completely different. Time spent waiting for reviews also has a positive effect, in that it creates necessary distance between the author and their work, meaning sensible revisions are easier to make. But I do think we need to be aware of the effects of uncertainty and take steps to reduce its impact on us. Here are four ideas.

  1. Aspects of life fall into three categories: those you can control, those you may be able to influence, and those you can neither control nor influence. Spend most of your energies on the first, some on the second, and none on the third. So I will spend my energies on hard work and good fun, and with any luck I won’t have much energy left for fruitless worry about the outcome of the peer reviews.
  1. Plan for different outcomes. Plans for positive reviews are easy, plans for negative reviews more challenging. For me, the worst-case scenario is that the publisher decides not to publish after all, which would mean – for either book – several years of work down the pan. However, that is unlikely, and if it does happen I/we can revise and submit again elsewhere.
  1. Acknowledge how you’re feeling. Writing this blog post is one way for me to acknowledge my own difficult feelings about this waiting period. In professional UK society the culture is not to talk about feelings much, if at all; if anyone asks how you are, the standard answers to give include ‘I’m fine’, or (with an eyeroll) ‘snowed under’. It’s as if we’re not allowed to give a real answer to the question. Yet suppressing our emotions is also bad for our mental health, so let’s talk about the difficulty of waiting, being in limbo, for unpredictable peer reviews.
  1. Practise self-care. All the usual stuff: eat sensibly, take exercise, get enough sleep – or, if you can’t sleep, rest your body quietly in a dark room and try to still your mind. There are some good video soundtracks and podcasts online to help you sleep. Work can be part of self-care when it’s work you enjoy and you don’t do too much. Spending time with loved ones is definitely part of self-care.

The peer review system can also be hard on reviewers, such as by asking more of people who are already too busy, and offering only intangible rewards. Saying ‘yes’ to a review request adds an extra burden of work, saying ‘no’ comes with an extra burden of guilt. Some people deal with this by deciding how many reviews they will undertake, such as 12 in a year, or three per draft article or book they themselves submit. That’s a great example of focusing on what you can control.

If you’re waiting for reviews yourself, the wait will be over, sooner or later. I hope you will be able to use the advice in this post to help make the process a little easier – as I intend to do myself. I wish you luck.

The Variety Of Indie Research Work

varietyOne of the things I love about being an independent researcher is the sheer variety of projects I work on and tasks I might do in a day. Yesterday, I was only in the office for the afternoon, yet I worked on at least seven different things. Here’s what I did.

First, I checked Twitter, and found a tweet with a link to a blog post I wrote about an event that is part of a project I’m working on with and for the forensic science community. This is a new departure for me, in that I haven’t worked with forensic scientists before, though the work itself is straightforward. I’m supporting a small group of people with research to identify the best way to create a repository for good quality student research data, and it’s surprisingly interesting. So I retweeted the tweet.

Second, I dealt with the morning’s emails. The arrival of a purchase order I’d been waiting for weeks to receive – hurrah! I formulated the invoice and sent it off to the client. Then some correspondence about the creative research methods summer school I’m facilitating at Keele in early July – just three weeks away now, so the planning is hotting up (and there are still some places left if you’d like to join us – it’ll be informative and fun). The most interesting email was a blog post from Naomi Barnes, an Australian education scholar who is considering what it means to be a white educator in the Australian school system. This chimes with the work I am doing on my next book, so I leave a comment and tweet the link.

While on Twitter, I got side-tracked by a tweet announcing #AuthorsForGrenfell, an initiative set up by authors for authors to donate items for auction to raise funds for the Red Cross London Fire Relief Fund to help survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire. I’d been wanting to help: my father is a Londoner, I have always had family in London, I lived in London myself from 1982-1997, and one member of my family is working in the tower right now to recover bodies. So it feels very close to home. But I’m not in a position to give lots of money, so I was delighted to find this option which I hope will enable me to raise more money than I could give myself. I have offered one copy of each of my books plus a Skype consultation with each one. My items aren’t yet up on the site, but I hope they will be soon because bidding is open already. If you’re one of my wealthy readers, please go over there and make a bid!

Then I spent some time researching aftercare for data. Yes, indeed there is such a thing. So far I’ve come up with two ways to take care of your data after your project is finished: secure storage and open publication. They are of course diametrically opposed, and which you choose depends on the nature of your data. Open publication is the ethical choice in most cases, enabling your data to be reused and cited, increasing your visibility as a researcher, and reducing the overall burden on potential research participants. In some cases, though, personal or commercial sensitivities will require secure storage of data. There may be other ways to take care of data after the end of a project, and I’ll be on the lookout for those as I work on my next book.

By now it was 6 pm so I did a last trawl of the emails, and found one from Sage Publishing with a link to a Dropbox folder containing 20 research methods case studies for me to review. They publish these cases online as part of their Methodspace website. I like this work: it’s flexible enough to fit around other commitments and, like other kinds of review, it tests my knowledge of research methods while also helping me to stay up to date. Best of all, unlike other kinds of review, Sage pay for my expertise. So I downloaded all the documents, checked and signed the contract, and emailed it back with a ‘thank you’. By then it was 6.30 pm and time to go home.

As the old saying goes, variety is the spice of life. I certainly like the flavour it gives to my work. Some days I work on a single project all day; those days are fun too. Yesterday I worked in my own office, today I’m out at meetings locally, tomorrow I’m off to London. It’s always ‘all change’ and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

First Peer Review – And Pizza

I’ve just done my first ever proper grown-up peer review of an article which had been submitted to a research methods journal. It was an interesting intellectual and emotional experience.

The article’s title was enticing and promised new insight into an aspect of research methods. I looked bad pizzaforward to reading it and learning about a point I hadn’t previously considered. And the content did deliver new insight – but it delivered it really, really badly. It was such a disappointment, like getting the pizza you ordered an hour late, cold, and with your favourite ingredient missing.

I felt such empathy for the author. He or she had obviously put in a fair amount of effort, and was going to be bitterly disappointed by my review. I could feel that pain. But it wasn’t a borderline decision; the article needed a lot more work. Key references had been left out – imagine an article on psychoanalysis that doesn’t cite Freud or Jung, and you’ll get the picture. Also, the argument made was woefully under-theorised, and with very little interpretive analytic work either.

I had prepared carefully, reading the journal’s guidelines for reviewers, the COPE guidelines for reviewers, and Pat Thomson’s posts on reviewing journal articles, while reflecting on my own experience of receiving reviews. So I wrote as constructively as I could, giving praise where I thought it was merited, specific references to help the author build the context, and suggesting some questions they might consider at the interpretive stage. I was quite relieved to find I was up to the job. But I still felt bad for the poor author.

I also felt bad for the entire research profession, because the argument being made was a really important one which needed to be heard. So much so that I thought I might have difficulty keeping it confidential. It was one of those points which, once stated, seemed blindingly obvious. And we all read so much. I was determined to maintain my professional standards and protect the author’s intellectual property – yet I could imagine, a few months on, absent-mindedly saying, ‘Oh yes, I read something somewhere, can’t quite remember where, but it made this really good point…’ I wonder how often that happens.

Then I had an idea. I hopped onto the web and did a quick search – and lo and behold, an article was published just a couple of months ago, making the same point. Whoopee! I could talk about it after all! But oh no… my poor, poor author…

Actually, it’s not a disaster, because there is more than enough room for two articles making this point in smiley pizzadifferent journals. So I added that reference, too, to my review, and ended with some words of encouragement. I truly think this is an important article in the making, and with a little more work, the author could deliver his or her argument in an article which is more like a warm, fragrant, appetising pizza, made from good ingredients in the right proportions.