Apr 11, 2016

Coping with Criticism: Improving Your Writing

Receiving feedback, criticism of your work, goes hand-in-hand with graduate study and academic careers. It might take the form of scrawl on the margins of your manuscript or strikeouts, additions, and comments in a tracked document. If it’s a peer reviewed manuscript, you’ll probably receive a lengthy single-spaced letter and accompanying 2 or 3 single-spaced reports. No matter the form, you’ll likely feel at least a little apprehensive and nervous about what lies within. Criticism often(usually?) stings but it ultimately leads to a better product. If you plan on an academic career (or any career), you’ll have to learn how to deal with criticism. Learning how to read and act on feedback is a skill and essential to your productivity and, ultimately, your success.

So, what do you do when you receive feedback?

Read the reviews and comments, then put the paper aside.
Take a deep breath and open the document. Skim over the comments. Then, if you’re brave, read it all in depth. Then put it aside to give yourself space to wrestle with your mangled pride. Time makes it easier to step back from critical comments and analyze your work objectively. Put the paper aside for at least a day, but ideally much longer. A week, even two or more, can help you gain perspective and realize that you’re not an impostor.

Don’t fret over reviewers’ tone.
Try not to let the tone and wording of reviews and comments sting. Frequently written comments may seem harsh and blunt, but terse comments often reflect the reviewer’s haste and desire to use time effectively by communicating clearly and concisely. Concise communication can often come across as terse. Try to look at the message itself.

Organize comments and suggestions.
Once you have read the review once or twice, read again while taking notes. List comments and organize them into meaningful categories. One list might consist of easy suggestions to address. Another will likely include suggestions that you need to think about. A third might be suggestions that you are inclined to ignore. You might later break the list down by content, for example, listing items regarding data analyses and interpretation, or the literature review.

Don’t ignore comments.
As you plan your revisions, be sure to address all comments. Remember that your mentor, dissertation committee, or reviewers have spent time reading, evaluating, and attempting to improve your work. They will expect to see that their advice is considered and their comments addressed. The more comments you receive, the more time your reader has spent considering your work. Ignoring a reviewer’s comments sends the message that you don’t value his or her work. While you don’t have to act on each suggestion, you should acknowledge and comment on each. If you don’t take a piece of advice, be prepared to explain why, which brings us to the next item.

Prepare a revision memo.
When you receive a recommendation to revise-and-resubmit a manuscript to a journal, it is customary and expected that a revision letter or memo will accompany your resubmission. An effective revision memo lists the substantive comments and suggestions made by reviewers and then notes how each is addressed in the revision. A revision memo is a useful preparation tool as it encourages you to consider and address all comments. Such a memo can be an important communication tool in your conversations with your advisor and dissertation committee. Even if not required, writing a revision memo can help you frame your work and ensure that you use feedback constructively. Consider writing revision memos in response to comments on your dissertation, even if you don’t share them with your committee. The process of writing a memo can help clarify your thinking – and it provides a record of your revisions that can help you document the evolution of your dissertation.

I’m not going to lie, receiving criticism is always challenging, but it gets easier. Devise a system that works for you so that you can take advantage of feedback and use it to improve your work