Friendly Feedback: How to ask

Let’s talk about friendly feedback, which means feedback on your academic writing from someone whose goal is to help you develop your document (peer, colleague, friend, mentor, writing coach, editor) before you send it to someone who is a gatekeeper for your writing (journal editor, publisher, thesis/dissertation advisor or committee). Now, don’t get me wrong–those gatekeepers will give you feedback as well, and it will help you develop your writing. It might even be delivered in a friendly way! But here I’m focusing on how you can ask someone to help you out and also clarify what you need from them.

You’ve already chosen who to ask, and they’ve agreed. Before hitting send, take a few steps to ensure you both have a good experience.

Step 0: Assess your emotional state regarding this draft. Your emotional state might be the most important thing for you to recognize, own, and share with the person who is going to read for you. If you are feeling a ton of imposter syndrome and critically-delivered feedback is going to crush your soul and prevent you from finishing this thing, please let your reader know. Ask them to provide plenty of encouragement. Your friendly reader can encourage you while also giving you honest, constructive feedback. You also want to gauge your emotional state before you try to do step 1, so you can determine if you are able to give your own draft a fair assessment.

Step 1: Assess your draft’s strengths and weaknesses. From your point of view, what is working? What’s not working? Is there a puzzle you need to solve to move forward?

Step 2: Figure out what stage of the writing process this draft is in. In reality, the writing process is not always linear, moving through clearly distinguishable phases. Still, there are some common, recognizable stages for a draft. Here’s some language to describe these stages:

  • Ideas but nothing in a document yet
  • Bullet points or outline
  • Rough prose: the bullet or outline points are turned into sentences and paragraphs. The words may be just however they came out (this is fine!), or you may have gone through those first rough sentences and paragraphs and made some changes to better reflect your thinking or to make sentences more reader friendly.
  • Revised prose: You’ve gone through all those stages above, let the draft sit for a bit, and then come back to make pretty big changes, often at the paragraph level or higher: changing the document’s organization, reworking the argument, removing and adding paragraphs or sections. You may have received and implemented feedback from someone else to get to this stage. Most likely, there is still some wonky language (moving stuff around can introduce typos and other weirdness).
  • Edited prose: You’ve done all the stuff above and then you or someone else has gone through each sentence with a fine-tooth comb, tidying up sentences, words, and formatting.

Most likely you want feedback to help you get from one of these stages to the next one. You’ll want to tell your reader where you’re at and where you want to get next.

Step 3: Assess your timeline. Realistically, how much time do you have to spend incorporating the feedback the person is going to give you? Maybe the things is due in a month, but the reality of your life is that you have one hour a week to spend on it. That means you don’t have a month; you have four hours. You want your reader to give you feedback that will help you make the best use of those four hours, not suggest a trip to Europe to visit an archive and collect more data.

Step 4: Know your audience, purpose, and genre. It might not be obvious to your friendly reader who your audience is, what you are trying to accomplish, and what kind of thing you are trying to write. Share any info that would be helpful to your reader. Got a thesis advisor with a quirky distaste for the phrase in order to? Share that. Are you trying to shake up a conversation in your field by asking some controversial questions? Your reader needs to know. Writing an essay review in which your job is to say something interesting about why three books have just been published on mapping the Neanderthal genome? You get the idea. All writing decisions circle back to audience, purpose, and genre, so make sure your friendly reader knows what, why, and for whom you are writing.

Once you’ve done these assessments, share all of that information with the person reading for you. You can talk about it (you’ll know you’ve chosen a good reader when they take notes on what you say) or you can write it all out for them in an email. Here’s an example:

Friendly Reader, thank you so much for agreeing to read my draft of my literature review for my dissertation. This is my first rough draft, so I'm wondering if the sections are in a good order at this point and if I've left out anything essential. My advisor said she likes "funnel shaped" lit reviews, so I'd like to know if you can see how I'm trying to funnel down to my specific topic, or if I can do that better. I feel like I've done a pretty good job summarizing the most current research on my specific topic, but I'm not sure if I go too far back/not far enough back with the historical stuff--or even if I have the right historical stuff. Sigh. I'm feeling a little lost and scared that my advisor is going to rip me to shreds. I still have quite a bit of time to work on it. I'm putting in two hours a day and I want to submit this chapter to my advisor in about six weeks. I'm also attaching my approved prospectus so you can see my research questions and basic research design plan. Thank you so much for your help!

Friendly Feedback: Who to ask

Welcome to the second post in my series on working with feedback as an academic writer. If you haven’t already, head to my first post to reflect on your relationship with feedback. This post is about finding helpful people to give you feedback throughout the writing process.

Cheerful students in a cafe discussing a draft one of them has written.

If you are a graduate student, you know you will get feedback from your advisor. Some advisors are willing to read and respond to very rough drafts, but many are not. Don’t assume. Ask your advisor what their expectations are, or, if the power dynamic means you aren’t comfortable asking directly, try to figure this out from peers in your program or alumni who worked with your advisor. Likewise, if you are publishing in a journal, you know you’ll get feedback from the peer reviewers and journal editor. But to get past the initial editor’s desk and into the peer review process, you need to submit a manuscript that is complete, developed, and polished. Same goes for most students giving work to an advisor for feedback.

So how do you get a draft to the complete, developed, and polished stage? To do that, you need to get feedback from someone else and use that feedback to develop your draft before giving it to your advisor or sending it to the journal. Keep in mind that even a complete, developed, and polished draft is going to get feedback for improvement, making it a work in progress once again. This is completely normal and expected. It does not mean you aren’t a good writer or that you’ve done something wrong. All academic writers need other sources of feedback besides the advisor, committee members, journal editors, and peer reviewers. Let’s call this friendly feedback. It’s feedback from someone who is not a gatekeeper for your work. They are in this just to help you.

To get really helpful friendly feedback, keep in mind a few things about what makes feedback productive. First, you are looking for someone who can read your work and give you insight into their experience as a reader. Suggestions are most helpful when they are grounded in what the reader needs for the text to achieve its purpose. In other words, you want someone who can tell you why your draft is or is not working for your audience, not just suggest changes that suit their personal preferences.

You want someone who can talk about your writing in terms of its audience and purpose, has experience with the kind of thing you are writing (or is comfortable using a successful sample for comparison), and is able to focus their feedback to what you need right now.

Ideally, the person giving you feedback has read many examples of the kind of thing you are writing. This kind of experience means the person knows something about the conventions of the type of document you are working on. That being said, someone skillful at giving feedback on writing can apply information you provide about the conventions, even if they don’t have a lot of experience with the type of document. If the person reading for you isn’t familiar with a dissertation methods chapter, for example, you could give them a sample of a successful chapter to compare to your document.

You also want someone who can tailor their feedback to you following guidance you give them about your stage of the writing process (my next post will cover how to ask for that tailored feedback). This means that if you are at the rough idea stage and want help thinking through whether or not you’ve included all the content you need, someone who can’t stop themselves from pointing out every typo and grammatical error is not helpful! But they might be super helpful at the final editing stage, so keep them in mind for that job.

To recap: You want someone who can talk about your writing in terms of its audience and purpose, has experience with the kind of thing you are writing (or is comfortable using a successful sample for comparison), and is able to focus their feedback to what you need right now. Who might these helpful readers be? Think about who’s in your network:

  • Peers: classmates, colleagues in or out of your department. Offer to review your peers’ work for them in exchange for their feedback on yours.
  • Mentors: former advisor, senior colleagues. Mentors are likely to be familiar with the kind of writing you are doing and what’s happening in your field. Of course, asking for their effort to review what could be a long piece of writing is a big favor. Is there something you can offer them in exchange?
  • Family and friends: You may find it difficult to find a reader among your family and friends as your academic expertise and writing have become more specialized–your research speaks to a narrower audience with specific training. But some academics are lucky enough to have a relative or friend who can give thoughtful, useful feedback on their academic writing. And they love you!
  • Writing support professionals: These people have titles like coach, editor, consultant, or tutor. Their services might be provided for free to you by your university through a university writing center, professional development center, or through a contract with an outside vendor. If this service is not provided by your university, or if the expertise available isn’t quite the right fit for your work, you can look for an editor, coach, consultant, or tutor beyond your university. You may be able to use research or professional development funds to help cover the cost. You are looking for someone who specializes in academic writing and does developmental editing and/or coaching (so they can work on early drafts with you). You can search for someone who meets your specific requirements on professional organization sites such as the Editorial Freelancers Association (the EFA) or Professional Editors Network (PEN).

I’d love to hear about your experiences with friendly feedback. Who do you rely on? Or have you learned any hard lessons about who NOT to ask? Would you add anything to my list of criteria?

Feedback: Friend or Foe?

Let’s be honest here. When you envision getting feedback on your writing, are you eager to see where your reader’s comments will lead your draft next, or are you terrified by the thought of even opening the email?

Every professional writer gets feedback as part of the publishing process. And guess what? As an academic, you are also a professional writer! You may still also be a student, in which case you are learning and being evaluated on your learning as you begin writing to professional academic standards. That’s intimidating and can lead to a perception that critical feedback means you have done something wrong (it usually doesn’t mean that).

Where ever you are in your academic career, I invite you to explore your experiences with receiving feedback on your writing. What experiences stand out? What emotions and bodily sensations come up as you recall these experiences? This exploration is an important first step in evaluating your relationship with feedback, so you can make any needed adjustments to that relationship and really harness feedback to serve your writing process. Feel free to share your reflection in the comments!

COVID 19 and Graduate School: Disruptions and Contributions

The passage above is from a chapter in a 2008 book called Infectious Disease Ecology: Effects of Ecosystems on Disease and of Disease on Ecosystems. This chapter was written by University of Alaska Biology and Wildlife professor, Terry Chapin, and colleagues. I sought out this book because I’ve been thinking about the COVID 19 pandemic from an ecological perspective. Homo sapiens is a species suddenly hosting this new coronavirus, and this is happening within an ecosystem. (Or ecosystems? Ecologists, tell me if the entire planet can be considered a single ecosystem or not.)

In my last post I wrote about my latest research project on doctoral writing. I shared that by considering our dissertation experiences through an ecological metaphor, my co-authors and I gained a deeper understanding of how we sought to balance school, work, and life. Specifically, we discovered how these different realms of our lives–following the ecological metaphor, we called them symbiotic clusters (Fleckestein et al., 2008)–both disrupted each other and contributed to each other.

It’s easy to see COVID 19 as a disruption–disease epidemics are termed “disturbances” in the passage from Chapin and colleagues. Yet as I’m working with graduate students throughout our collective COVID 19 experience, I’m hearing about both disruptions and contributions. Our response to COVID 19 means changing our practices within the symbiotic clusters of school, work, and life. As graduate students carry on with their dissertations or theses, some of these changes disrupt their progress, while others contribute to it.

For many graduate students who are also employed, their work practices have changed. Many are doing their job from home instead of their usual workplace. Some are front-line health care workers doing their jobs with increased protection protocols and working longer hours. Others are government employees on call 24/7 to implement pandemic plans. And some graduate students are unable to go to work because their employer has been closed or because they have no child care.

Graduate students are also changing their practices in the symbiotic cluster we call life. Many are parents, caring for their children in new ways and guiding their children’s education in new ways. Like all of us, graduate students are facing changes in how they interact with family members and friends. Options for self-care are different in this time of physical distancing. And some graduate students are sick or are caring for someone who is sick.

COVID 19 has brought many changes in graduate students’ school practices. Many graduate students already attend their classes online, but many are experiencing online classes for the first time. Many graduate students have halted data collection or are revising their proposed data collection plans to implement social distancing. Some simply can’t collect data right now because every potential participant on the planet is experiencing COVID 19, and that would mess up their results.

COVID 19 has suddenly changed practices across the school, work, and life clusters, and changes in each cluster send feedback to all the others. While we are facing the challenges of this grave crisis, many people are pointing out unexpected “silver linings.” We can understand these benefits from an ecological perspective on academic writing as contributing feedback. Canceled travel and events open up time in the calendar for academic work. Staying at home, for some, facilitates the stretches of solitude that many crave for the writing process. Scaling back data collection plans may make a study more feasible for an emerging researcher. As people feel compelled to offer social support (from a safe distance, through an internet connection) some graduate students are finding writing groups or writing partners for the first time.

I also sense that many of us are gaining some clarity as a result of facing the crisis. We are recognizing what’s most important to us. We are giving ourselves and others compassion. We are accepting imperfection. Through my experience supporting academic writers, I know that all of these insights can help people move forward in the writing process.

Thanks to Chapin and colleagues I’m now adding another key term to my understanding of this contributing feedback: resilience. Yes, we are experiencing a disease-induced change in state right now. At the same time, we are seeing that our personal writing ecologies have the capacity to absorb shocks. We can sustain our slow variables–our commitment to intellectual inquiry, our supportive relationships and self-compassion–and thereby plant the seeds for recovery. None of this means the disruption isn’t hard. But we can do hard things. We will come through this.

References

Chapin, F., Eviner, V., Talbot, L., Wilcox, B., Magness, D., Brewer, C., & Keebler, D. (2008). Disease Effects on Landscape and Regional Systems: A Resilience Framework. In Eviner V., Ostfeld R., & Keesing F. (Eds.), Infectious Disease Ecology: Effects of Ecosystems on Disease and of Disease on Ecosystems (pp. 284-303). PRINCETON; OXFORD: Princeton University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctt7sgg4.20

Fleckenstein, K.S., Spinuzzi, C., Rickly, R.J., & Papper, C.C. (2008). The importance of harmony: An ecological metaphor for writing research. College Composition and Communication, 60(2), 388-419.

Seeking Balance

Trying to complete a dissertation or thesis alongside all of our other responsibilities is incredibly hard. Many graduate students are also parents, full-time employees or business owners, or involved in teaching or clinical training. All students have lives beyond the dissertation. All have a need for social connection. All have bodies that need care and attention. All of these parts of our lives need our time and energy, and because there are only so many hours in a day and we have only so much energy to give, these competing priorities pull us in different directions. It’s stressful.

Throughout my dissertation experience, I was in close contact with four wonderful friends from my doctoral cohort. Later, we conducted a qualitative study to better understand our experiences. We all struggled with the dissertation. In particular, we all struggled to do the dissertation work in the contexts of our lives. Like most graduate students, we found that our families, our paid work, our health and other aspects of our lives all competed for our time and energy. Even our sense of ourselves within those other aspects of our lives sometimes felt at odds with our sense of ourselves within the dissertation work.

As we looked further into how we actually moved through the experience, we found that an ecological metaphor helped us understand what “balance” meant for us. We looked at the different aspects of our lives as interdependent ecosystems. Each aspect–family, for instance–was its own constantly changing ecosystem that sent feedback into another ecosystem, like the dissertation work. Sometimes this feedback disrupted the other ecosystem, but sometimes it was helpful. For example, I constantly felt guilty about missing out on time with my young son to work on my dissertation, and that seriously messed up my ability to do good dissertation work. Eventually, though, I had a realization that my family had made so many sacrifices to support me that I just had to complete my dissertation to honor their support. At that point, my family ecosystem was sending helpful, kick-it-into-gear feedback into my dissertation ecosystem.

My classmates and I never “found” balance. It was never over and done with. We were continually seeking balance. While different parts of our lives competed, there were also ways these different parts of our lives supported each other. We weren’t necessarily conscious of the helpful, contributing feedback relationships in the moment–it was a lot easier to see the disruptive feedback–but after closely examining our experiences, we came to the new insight that when enough contributing feedback was happening, the disruptive feedback was mitigated. And that was when our dissertation work moved forward.

Our research process was based on reflective writing and group discussion. Based on that process, we came up with some questions we feel may help other graduate student writers reflect on the different ecosystems in their lives and the feedback between them. Try writing on these questions and see what you discover:

  • Tell the story of your dissertation experience (to date)
  • What are the struggles or conflicts you see in your story?
  • How do you resolve those struggles or conflicts? Or how might you resolve them?