Hello, my name is Sherran, and I am afraid of feedback on my writing.
There, I said it. I have a mental block, or maybe it’s an emotional sort of block, about feedback. I find it really hard to open feedback and face it, in whatever form it comes. I fear it – it raises my anxiety levels, it makes me feel unsettled and a bit ill sometimes. I always, always *know* it will be bad (read: negative, will make me feel horrible, will tell me I’m actually not a good writer/teacher/assessor/supervisor). So convinced am I of this *fact* that I avoid feedback as long as I possibly can. This is perhaps not the healthiest of attitudes.
During my PhD, even though after getting to know my supervisor, I knew – actually knew, not just believed – that her feedback was never mean, always constructive, incisive, and would make my writing and thinking sharper, it took me on average three days to open a feedback email, and a further day or two to open the file and read all of the comments. This process was, of course, not about my supervisor at all, or even her feedback per se, and all about me – my insecurities, my sense of being some kind of fraud, my fears of not being good enough. I think it was also linked to my deep need for gold stars and top marks, and my knowing that this was unlikely to be coming from the feedback, because a PhD is a constant learning journey and you don’t actually get a mark or a gold star.
Many of the students and academics I have met and worked with over the years have been high achievers. They have high standards for themselves and tend to be hard on themselves when they don’t meet those standards or produce the work they believe they should be able to produce. Many of the students and academics I work with also tend to do research on or about subjects they are really passionate about and believe in deeply. They cannot easily separate their writing from who they are in the world and what matters to them. This means, of course, that feedback becomes a fraught experience. Things supervisors/reviewers/examiners say to you about the writing, the argument, the tone, the depth of the thinking, become things they say about *you* – about how you are not (yet) good enough or clever enough or thoughtful enough. This makes working with feedback difficult.
Let’s take the first issue: high standards and a desire for gold stars, praise, and acknowledgment of your brilliant work. When I wrote my thesis, I secretly wanted to write the best thesis any examiner had ever read. I kept this a secret because I knew, of course, that this was a ludicrous goal. But I carry with me my younger self, who won writing prizes and academic awards, and she quite liked being the ‘clever one’. Current me understands that there are many ways to be ‘clever’ and that the best kind of writing is not actually ‘perfect’ and needs feedback, revisions, and reworking to be persuasive, clear, well-received by my peers, and, eventually, cited by other researchers. I did not, of course, write the best thesis ever. I have not written the best book ever, or the best paper ever. And no one ever will – objectively speaking. These things are ideals, not reals. Subjectively, I have written papers I am proud of and like re-reading, and that have been well cited. That is so much more than enough, and I need to remember that impressing reviewers enough to get their critique and feedback is a gold star. Being published and cited is acknowledgement of my work. But I can’t get there without facing and overcoming my fear of feedback.
Then the second issue: conflating what you write about with who you are in the world and then taking feedback way too personally. We all – or most of us – have some kind of passionate attachment to our research. We believe in it enough to spend years doing it, we know that other people need to know about it and read our writing, we feel that the words on the pages that take so long to write and edit and revise are part of us. So when a reviewer or examiner critiques the thinking behind an argument we’ve made, or the currency of the literature we have cited, or the depth of our analysis, it is really hard not to take it personally and see it as a statement about us as thinkers, readers, and writers. *You* are not a deep enough thinker; *you* are not a very good writer. That’s not what they are actually saying. What supervisors, examiners and reviewers are saying is ‘you are joining our field as a peer, and we want to help you make the strongest contribution possible, so here is some feedback so that you can use to help you sharpen your thinking, update your reading, deepen your analysis’. This process is not not about you, because you are the writer getting the feedback, but it is a not a personal attack (most of the time). So learning how to read feedback, feel your feelings, and then separate your self from the work the feedback is suggesting you do is a helpful way to overcome your fear.
I am not sure that my mental block about feedback will ever go away, because – as I started out saying – it is linked to my own insecurities and sense of being a fraud, and I don’t know that this will ever go away. But, the more I write and submit my work to reviewers and critical friends, the more feedback I get, and the more I realise that what I am being offered is actually there to help me feel less insecure, less like a fraud, more part of a rich, generative series of conversations in my field that I am interested in and that excite me as a researcher. I am being offered chances to learn about myself as a writer and my writing style and process, and chances to make my writing clearer, sharper, more creative, better. When I remember this I feel less afraid of feedback, or at least more able to make myself brave enough to open the email, read the comments, and work on my writing. I think perhaps all we can all do is work on being braver – about putting our writing down on paper, sending it out into the world, and taking feedback on board as part and parcel of this process.