Getting feedback on your writing is tough for a lot of people for a lot of reasons. In this post, I walk you through some basic tools for working with that feedback, so you can move your project forward.
My post on Feedback: Friend or Foe asked you to reflect on your relationship with feedback. If receiving feedback is hard for you, you might now have some ideas about why.
First, have your reaction
Let’s recognize that getting feedback on writing can bring up a lot of difficult emotions, including anger, frustration, defensiveness, and fear. Knowing this, plan to give yourself some time to have whatever reaction you have. Your first job with the feedback is just to read it (or listen to it), without responding in any way. Just try to take it in. If you get wound up, notice the reaction. It’s probably going to manifest first as a physical response, like a tight chest, tight jaw, or thumping heart. You might also experience some reactive thoughts, like, They didn’t even read the whole thing! or I’m never going to be good enough.
The physical response is temporary, and the thoughts are just thoughts, not reality. Notice, and then let the reaction go. This might take a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days. You’ll know you are ready to engage with the feedback when you can think about it without going into that physical fight-flight-freeze response.
Then get to work
My strategy for working with feedback is systematic. Whether for my own writing or when I’m helping a client, I chart the feedback in a table. Adopting this table strategy will help you stay organized as you implement the feedback. Your work with the table also generates a neat and tidy summary of the changes you made (and why) to share with the editor/advisor who gave you the feedback.
A feedback table I made when working with two editors' feedback on a chapter draft. I organized feedback from higher-order concerns (at the top) to lower-order concerns (at the bottom). The colors indicate the boundaries of specific categories of feedback, helping me work on one category at a time.
Organizing the table is part of processing the feedback. One way I frequently organize is to put higher-order concerns (requests for big conceptual or organizational changes) at the top and then work down to lower-order concerns (grammar, spelling, formatting). Resolving higher-order concerns first, before dealing with any lower-order concerns, is best for efficiency. You want to be done moving or deleting whole sections or paragraphs before you tackle any sentence-level editing, so you can avoid editing a sentence that is going to be cut.
Some writers color code comments as easy (green), medium (yellow), or difficult (red). This scheme might also be thought of as coding tasks based on the level of energy required from you as a writer: low-medium-high. Color coding this way can help you match a task to your current physical and mental state. Just keep in mind that doing a bunch of editing, because you’re tired, when you haven’t addressed bigger picture issues might be an inefficient use of time.
Address every comment
Some of my clients are confused about what it means to process feedback. Tough love time: You really do have to address everything the reviewer/advisor has said.
Now, it’s true that you do not always have to do exactly everything that is asked or suggested exactly the way it was asked or suggested, and I think this is where some academic writers get tripped up. As a writer, you have to use your judgment about whether or not and how you modify something in response to what your reviewer/advisor has said, but you have to have a good reason, which you articulate back to the reviewer/advisor, for why you did not do something. In other words, your default position is always to do what they asked. Only in exceptional circumstances do you not, and you always explain why.
For example, on the higher-order-concern end of the spectrum, you might be asked to describe your methods in a way that is inconsistent with the methodological literature you actually followed. In that circumstance, you still address the comment by explaining that the change would inaccurately represent your methods, and you’d probably emphasize which methodologist you followed somewhere in your text. On the lower-order-end of the spectrum, someone might ask you to use formatting that does not actually match the format guide you’ve been told to use. You can point to the format guide to explain why you will not be making that change. If you find yourself avoiding addressing something for a reason you would not be willing to share with the reviewer/advisor, such as I didn’t understand the comment or that felt too hard, it’s time to ask for clarification or get some support in your process.
You don’t have to go it alone
If all of this feels overwhelming for you, please hear me when I say it is okay–and, in fact, wise–to reach out for support as you work with feedback. Those folks you identified as good people to ask for friendly feedback? Also likely to be good at helping you move through the process we just outlined here.
I’d love to hear about any strategies you use to work with feedback on your writing.