‘Put down the red pen’: Some thoughts-in-progress on feedback-giving

I haven’t posted anything in ages, for a range of reasons, mostly to do with just having a super tired brain that can really only do what it has to do and nothing extra. I try to make writing blog posts part of my weekly work, but I do also need some creative oomph to find a hook and be myself and share some thoughts (hopefully wisdom) on subjects I am thinking about and think readers might be interested in. And that oomph has been in ever-shorter supply lately. Mainly, I have been spending a lot of my time giving writers feedback on their own writing, and have run out of steam for mine in the process. But, the upside of this is that I have been thinking a lot about feedback-giving and reflecting on doing this online (as opposed to pen-and-paper). Specifically, when do you jump in and track changes, and when do you back off and highlight errors for writers to fix themselves, and how much feedback is too much in the average 10-12 page paper or chapter draft?

There is a large amount of very good research out there on feedback: what and when and how and why and how much. There are many differing viewpoints, of course, but one thing much of the research in recent years can agree on is that feedback works best when it invites dialogue and conversation between the feedback-giver and the writer(s) receiving it. In essence, this means moving from telling writers what to do, to offering advice, prompts, suggestions and explanations that enable and encourage them to sit with their writing and work in revising and correcting it themselves. In this process, they hopefully gain greater insight into and understanding of themselves as writers and not only what they are writing about, but how they are writing about it too, and the effect of their writing on a reader. This is the “critical friend” position: as your feedback-giver, I am here as a friend, but not one who will tell you your writing is perfect (because we know there is no such thing, right?) I will point out errors, gaps and so on from the perspective of a reader, and advise you as best I can on how you could improve the next draft (at least).

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But, the question then becomes: How? How do I offer advice, suggestions, explanations and so on? How much feedback is too much feedback for a writer to make sense of and work with? How many times might I get to read this piece? How do I hold myself back from just re-writing parts of this for them (especially if the writer is my student)?

These How? questions are the subject, again, of much research and fraught conversation in academia, especially as we have moved more and more online in the recent past, and more than perhaps ever before in 2020. We are not necessarily marking by hand, which limits the amount of correcting we can do and comments as can offer, because margin space is limited. I find that I tend to be more discerning when I mark by hand about what to focus on and what to leave, and then how to explain to students the feedback and ongoing revision work. Online, in Word or PDF, I can comment on every error, every line of text if I want to. I don’t have to discern in the same way because space is not as limited in an online text. I can cross out your writing and write my own version over it, potentially taking your ownership of your text away (you can reject my changes, but how many students do this?) I can delete parts of your text, even.

This is where the How? questions can become tricky, and require some introspection on what you are trying to do with your feedback to your students or peers, and what they need to get out of it. If you see feedback as mainly about producing a “perfect” text, then you may well track changes, type over the author’s words and, in the process, assert yourself as part-author of that text. If they don’t understand the thinking or grammatical rules and so on behind the changes you have made, and they see you as an authority, they may just “Accept All” and send it back. But, whose work are you then assessing: yours or theirs? Whose ‘voice’ comes through the text? I have given into the temptation to do too much of this, and have ended up reading revised writing that sounds way more like me that my student in places. It’s an uncomfortable feeling because I know they are not learning and growing as much as they could if I pulled back and tried something less directive (even if that would take more time all round).

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If I see feedback, then, as helping students and writers to become more authorial, more in control of their text, their meanings and the knowledge they are creating – and this is certainly the case when you are working with postgraduate and postdoctoral students and writers as I am – I have to work differently. First, I cannot jump on every error and correct it. I try to find two or three examples of the error, if it is repeated, and in the comment bubble, I try to explain as clearly as I can why this is an error and how they can fix it. Sometimes they copy and paste my words from the bubble into the text without thinking too hard, but often, what comes back is a step forward. I have to offer my advice as questions, prompts, suggestions rather than instructions, so that their input (even if this is not shared with me directly) is invited and prioritised in revisions.

Second, depending on how many times I am going to get to see this draft, or where this assignment is placed within a whole assignment plan, I have to be discerning about how many things I comment on and how I approach the feedback process. Do I highlight all of the confusions I see, every missing link between sections and paragraphs, every muddled/long/obtuse sentence, every claim that has no evidence or elaboration behind it? If I do, with that be 20 comments over a 10 page piece of writing, or 40? And, even if it is only 20, will that be too much for this writer or this student? How much time do they have to sit with the comments, make sense of them, ask for clarification, have a meeting with me on Zoom? If this is a doctoral or Masters student writing a thesis, that’s probably an okay amount, because we’ll chat about it in supervision and they’ll likely have a few weeks to work on the next draft. If this is a writer working on a paper for publication, they may, too, have time to rework the paper.

But time is not the only factor, right? We also have to think about the level of confidence of the student, and how much they can actually cope with, mentally and emotionally. Will this feedback really help this student/writer, or will it paralyse them? We all experience anxiety and a bit of paralysis when we get feedback and have to start revisions, no matter how confident we may be as writers. But, the more experienced writers who have gone through the process of getting things wrong, being guided to a more sound position and getting their writing there through revisions and redrafting, may be less overwhelmed by critical feedback given in larger amounts. They know it will probably be okay in the end, even if it hurts and is hard to work through now, and will take time and effort.

But the average student has not yet been through this process enough to know that the feedback doesn’t mean they are stupid, or should not be writing a thesis or paper, and that if they do the work it will probably be okay in the end. So, I try to be conscious of my tone, and also how much feedback I offer and what I offer it on, to try not to overwhelm and paralyse the writers and students I work with. This is the hardest part of online feedback for me – pulling back and leaving things I know I could comment on but that perhaps are not so important right now. I tend to over-comment, to be honest. What I have started doing is forcing myself to just read a few pages without making any comments and changes, and then think about what most needs to be done to improve the next draft. Then I write one or two longer comments on the pages, rather than 10 small comments. This is hard, but it feels better to me in terms of the presence I take up in the text. Of course, this always depends on what I reading, why I am offering feedback and where the writer/student is, but as a general practice, it prevents me from going overboard.

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I have also started sending my students and writers small summary voice-notes. This is partly because I get lazy about typing long summary comments, and partly to moderate the tone of my feedback in this online life where I don’t always get to meet the writers and students on Zoom to explain the feedback to them. I have found a free audio recorder app that works on my laptop and creates small files (about 3mb for a 5 minute recording), and I talk my summary feedback. I say ‘hello’ and offer them an overview of my impression of the text as their reader, and then highlight 2 or 3 main things I think really need to be part of the next draft. I always sign off with an encouraging comment, so that when they then open the text file, that’s hopefully what they hear in their heads.

The feedback from my students so far has been that they like the voice notes, and that these do indeed take the sting and fear out of the feedback a bit and make it a bit easier to ‘hear’ my voice in the comments encouraging rather than scolding them. We never really know all of what writers and students have experienced around their earlier writing, reading and feedback outings before we work with them; even if you have encouraging intentions, your feedback can still be heard in a negative tone in their heads. The voice notes may help to mitigate this over time. Maybe, if they hear an encouraging voice enough in a voice note and in the written comments it may over-write any mean voices telling them they can’t do this. I hope it will.

Feedback-giving online is tough, certainly for me. I really battle to put down the metaphorical red pen in the form of tracked changes and multiple comment bubbles, and focus on ‘higher order’ concerns around argument, understanding, cohesion and sense-making. It’s much easier to over-write and fix small mistakes, especially when you are tired and longer explanatory comments are hard to express clearly. But, I try to stop myself when I feel I am heading in this direction, take a break from the feedback and come back to it with a clearer head. This doesn’t always work out, of course, with deadlines and many tasks on the weekly list and too much last-minuting and fatigue. But, where I can take this time, I do, and where I can’t I try to be more conscious of what I am doing. Usually, this takes the form of going back over the writing before I send it, deleting or editing overly long or ultimately unnecessary comments, and composing an encouraging voice-note.

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I feel like the bottom line here is that I will always be fallible and get it wrong in parts, and maybe even come across as terse and mean when I never have that intention. Feedback is a conversation, and you cannot control what people hear, how they hear it and even what they do with it. But, I can control my responses and my own learning and improving. With this online life being where we are now and into the future, all I really can do is keep learning how to fail better with each student and each draft. And now you’ll have to excuse me, because I have to get back to doing exactly that!

Book writing: I revised my book!

In January, I had the happy task of writing a post about how I had finished my first solo book project, and sent it off to the series editor, and to two peers for critical feedback. This post is about the other side of that: the revisions.

That revisions suck is a relatively well-established truth of writing, I think. I have written about it, as have many others. They suck because, as Pat Thomson has written, they ask us for more: more energy, more time, more thinking, more reading, more writing. More. On a piece of writing that has already asked quite a lot of us, and should – really, now – be finished. I knew that the revisions were coming; the book draft was just that, a solid first full draft. And, actually, they were not huge revisions, like rewriting parts of chapters, or doing away with whole sections or anything terrifying like that. Mostly, the changes I needed to make were small: writing a new paragraph here, making a clearer explanation of a concept there, correcting an incorrect something, fixing typos, editing the omnipresent long sentences. Yet, what should have taken me a week took me more than a month. Why?

An idyllic writing scene/Photo by Peter Olexa from Pexels

Well, covid for one thing. Suddenly I am not working from home alone-with-the-cats anymore; now I am working from home with Everyone In My Space. So, there are many more distractions to catch the eye of my already gnat-like concentration span, and tempt it off course. Also, I got in my own way, and turned relatively manageable revisions into a Huge Thing. I wrote here about self-sabotage; this is a subject I consider myself to be somewhat of an expert in. I am very, very good at getting in my own way.

As Hayley Williams sings in ‘Caught in the Middle’: “I don’t need no help/I can sabotage me by myself/Don’t need no-one else/I can sabotage me by myself”. My main form of self-sabotage is doing all the small things that don’t require much thought first in the day, so that by the time I get to the big things that do require thought, I am tired. So, I then put off the big things to the next day, and repeat this format. Then, the day before the deadline for the big thing that needed a good 4-5 days worth of thinking, working, revisions, and finalising, I am in a complete state trying to get it done and hoping it will be good enough. Then, I redo the whole project in my head for several days after submitting it, kicking myself for doing a rushed job when I could have just done it ‘properly’. Sound at all familiar?

My second form of self-sabotage is telling myself the things are too much and too big and too hard, and that I am not good enough to do them. Who am I to be writing a book? The arrogance of me. Who am I to be writing a report for government? Nobody, that’s who. I can’t write at all, actually – just look at all the critique I have been offered over the years. The people who like my writing are just being nice because they are married to me, or my friends, or clearly don’t know bad writing when they read it. I am just crap at everything, so why do I think I can do any of this? I don’t always fall for this stuff: often, I can shut this mean voice up long enough to get the work done. I have gotten better at this over the years. But, even if she doesn’t sabotage the doing of the project, this mean voice makes me rethink just about everything I write, even after I have sent it off. So, battling this meanness, and believing in myself and my work and my ability is part of getting out of my own way.

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Both of these forms of self-sabotage and self-doubt showed up during the revisions period for the book. I couldn’t even open the files for about 2 weeks, even though I told myself every day that I should. I told myself I had plenty of time (I did not; I had a deadline). I told myself it would all be fine if I just pushed the revisions down the list day after day (it was, in the end, but doing a week’s worth of thinking and revisions in 3 days is not recommended). I told myself I did not know enough to actually be writing a book, and I should leave it to the experts (here I ended up believing my critical friends and Lovely Husband and the series editor, who told me this was untrue. I hope they are right).

Eventually, I did get out of my own way, although quite late in the day. I have realised that getting in my own way and sabotaging myself is probably not going to be something I can completely stop doing. My goal is not actually to turn myself into a different person; my goal is to start getting out of my own way faster. I would like to stop doing the Big Things at the last minute, and give myself more time to think, write, revise, get feedback, think some more. I’d like to do justice to my ideas and my writing. I would like to have less panic and stress, and more calmness around work. I can hear you chuckling, and thinking: ‘Ah, how idealistic she is. What a lovely fantasy plan’. Perhaps. Maybe calm is not a completely realistic goal – not in present circumstances anyway. But, I reckon I can shoot for more time to finish projects and less last-minute panic and stress.

Triumph/giphy.com

In the end, I have revised my book. I am very proud of it. It represents about 10 years of research, thinking, reading, writing, feedback and revisions. It’s a significant chapter of my life, personal and professional, that this book is, to some extent, bringing to a close. It’s a pretty triumphant moment. So, I am revelling in it, and I’m not rewriting this one. There’ll be time for that, after all, when the proofs arrive…

Why are revisions so damn hard?

Revisions really suck. There is no gentler or politer way to state this truth. Going back to a piece of work, long or short, that you have “finished” and realising it is nowhere near “finished”, and having to do more work on it is not something most writers look forward to. But, sitting where I am now, writing a book and having to rewrite and revisit chapters as I get feedback, I have been wondering again: why, really, are revisions so damn hard?

I think there are two dimensions to this: intellectual, and emotional. And both of these work together when we write – writing is not just a pursuit of the mind and brain. When we do research, as academic scholars, we work in areas we are interested in, passionate about, committed to, work that stimulates us both intellectually and personally. We write about issues and problems that matter to us, both intellectually and personally. That means, of course, that even though it is ‘academic’, our writing is never completely objective, or removed from our selves as the writers. There is always a subjective dimension, it is always personal.

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Meg Ryan has a great line in ‘You’ve Got Mail’ where she questions a comment from Joe Fox – the old ‘It’s not personal, it’s business’ line. She says: ‘Whatever anything else is, it ought to begin by being personal’. This is true of research, and academic writing: what you research and write about needs to matter to you; it needs to be personal and important. Otherwise, it’s pretty hard to find the motivation and interest to keep the research going, and to keep the writing going, especially of the revisions kind.

This is my first insight into why I certainly find revisions so difficult to get to: feedback can hurt, and that hurt can create what Kate Chanock has called “emotional static”, that interferes with my ability to re-engage with my work. On a personal level, I feel I am not good enough because my writing wasn’t good enough, and I don’t even want to re-read the paper. Especially when our work is reviewed by anonymous examiners and editors, there is a great risk of getting feedback that will not be kind, or helpful, or see the good as well as what needs more work. Those with the power that comes with these evaluative roles do not always use this power for good. Revisions can be hard, then, when the feedback has been harsh, and you have to go back to work that has been trodden all over and now seems less worthy of all that time and effort.

But, even if I have asked a critical friend who I know will be constructive and helpful and kind, I find it hard to open the email, and read the comments. I had this issue constantly during my PhD, and my supervisor always gave me this kind of feedback. It was never harsh or unkind. So, why was opening that email such a fearful thing to do? I think, when I am afraid to open feedback emails, there are two things I am afraid of: one, that the feedback will be harsh in the sense that my writing (that I thought might be pretty good) has missed the mark, and I have not achieved what I thought I had. I will then have to wrestle with Imposter Syndrome feelings of self-doubt, and try to motivate myself to keep going. This makes me tired, and sad. So, in avoiding the revisions, I avoid these difficult emotions.

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The second thing I am afraid of is that my writing is actually quite good, but that there is still work to do, and this work will require more deep thinking, and reading, and re-visioning my writing. This work is not easy, or quick. And when you have “finished” a piece of writing, and have so many other things to move on to, coming back to something you had hoped would be completed, but is not, is like: ‘Seriously? When will this thing be done??’ This is both an emotional and intellectual thing – you have to push yourself to find the energy and will and interest to get back into that paper or chapter, and drive yourself on, and you have to re-think, re-vision, re-read, and re-write until you have addressed the comments and feedback properly. It makes my brain tired just thinking about it.

As so many have argued, though, myself included: revisions are part of this writing/publishing/being a scholar game. No paper or book is ever really finished – hence the “” around this word. Even when the ‘publish’ button has been pressed, people will read your work and challenge it, and question a claim you have made, or the theory you have used and so on. To be an academic researcher and writer means to have a thicker skin around putting your work out there, having it read and picked apart by peers, and having to engage with their (not always kind) feedback. We can’t just put our fingers in our ears and say ‘la-la-la-la-la’ until they go away.

I am not sure I will ever find the process of getting and reading and thinking about and working with feedback pleasurable. But, I have had the experience of reading a revised paper, after it has finally been published, and feeling much prouder of that version that I would have been if the first one had been published. So, I suppose that is pleasurable, and remembering that sense of accomplishment, and pride in myself, is a useful feeling to hold on to now, when I have revisions to do, and I am not looking forward to them. The way into re-engaging the intellectual part of the process is often through finding an emotional foothold: finding an element of pleasure in the process that you can motivate yourself with, to get back into the writing and revise the paper or chapter, and move forward.

Seeing feedback and peer review as a gift rather than a curse

I have been in the fortunate position of sending off five papers recently that I have been working on for the last several months – a mix of single and co-authored work. The upside is that I have lots to report to my postdoc funders and I have learned even more about writing for publication; the downside is that I am going to be receiving a flurry of feedback on these papers within quite a short space of time, and will have to ingest, consider and respond to this feedback like a grown-up. This part I am feeling apprehensive about.

thewritingcampus.comFeedback, as many of us know, is not easy to receive and hear, even when it is positive. Feedback means more thinking, more reading, more writing; in short, feedback almost always points to more work. Most of the time, when you are finished with a paper or a chapter and you send it off you just would like to be done with it. You have other writing to be getting on with and other things to be doing. Yet, the paper or chapter will come back, with comments, suggestions, criticism and critique (although hopefully more of the latter). You, as the writer (on your own or with co-authors), will need to read all the comments and suggestions, probably a few times, note your responses, and then go back into that paper or chapter you would like to be done with and make changes, revise parts of it, do a little more reading, perhaps revisit data analysis, edit long sentences (if you’re me!). It can feel overwhelming, even when the overall thrust of the feedback is positive and the journal wants to publish your work, or your supervisor thinks you are almost there.

Cally Guerin has written about learning to see feedback on your writing as a ‘gift’ – as something that can enrich your thinking and writing, rather than take away from it. I like this idea – about giving and receiving feedback. I try, whenever I see the email in my inbox indicating that an editor has reached a decision on a manuscript I have submitted, or a critical friend has read and commented on my work, to remember this: that they are trying to give me a gift. They are offering me another opportunity to think about and revise my work to make it stronger, clearer and more persuasive and convincing to readers.  Even if the decision is to reject this version of my paper, the peer reviewers are not trying to break me down and make me feel terrible about my writing. Rather, they are offering me their insight as readers who would be interested in reading my paper, and perhaps using it in their own research. They are offering me a way of seeing my own work through their eyes, and comments and suggestions that can help me to clarify vagaries, shorten long sentences, bring out my contribution more firmly and so on.

I know that not all supervisors or peer reviewers use their powers for good: there is much feedback students and writers receive that is criticism, and is hurtful, unkind and unhelpful. But, as a journal editor of a few years’ standing, and a writer who is becoming braver at sending my work out to journals that is now receiving feedback, I can say that most peer reviewers really do want to help you develop your ideas and make your paper even better. Most peer reviewers do see their role as giving writers feedback that is a gift, rather than a curse. I spoke to a colleague recently, for example, who has reviewed many articles and supervised many students, and always asks himself: ‘Is the writing ready to publish/move on from? If yes, is there anything that can be improved further, and if no, why not and how could this writer get there?’ If supervisors and peer reviewers worked with a version of these questions, and I believe many do, they would certainly be offering writers new ways to re-read and revise their own work.

www.crossfitlondon.ca The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper

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The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper

For me, the challenge is always confronting myself, my own fears, insecurities and beliefs about myself as a researcher and writer. Even when reviewers are positive, I hone in on the negative. I read reviews with fear and trepidation, always prepared for them to say the worst about my writing. I am invariably surprised – even papers that have been rejected have garnered some positive praise, and following the reviewers’ advice tends to build my research up, makes my papers better, and makes me prouder of them and myself. So, I am learning to believe that I have something to say that is of value; that I can make a contribution to my field that people will want to read. It is an ongoing battle, but what I have learned is this: the more you ask for feedback, from the right kinds of people – people who are your readers and would be interested in your work – and the more you work with that feedback to see the strengths and flaws in your writing and develop it further, the easier it gets. Like the Little Engine that could, the more you think you can and try on that basis, the more you can actually accomplish. The writing gets a little less difficult and onerous the more you write, and the feedback gets a little less scary the more you read it, engage with it, and accept it as a gift that will ultimately make you a better writer.