Corrections and revisions: same thing or different?

For any piece of writing, especially something substantial such as a report, a paper or a thesis chapter, there is going to be more than one draft. This means there will be feedback from others, reflection on your own about what works in the writing and what needs further work, and time spent reworking, revising, rewriting, editing and proofreading. Corrections and revisions. For more experienced writers, I think the difference between these two acts in writing are perhaps clearer than for less experienced writers, such as postgraduate students. Two separate conversations with two of my own students recently pointed me to this: both spoke of getting to the corrections and sending me fresh drafts, when I had not offered very much at all by way of corrections and was mostly looking for more significant revisions. I wondered, then, how academia in general uses these words: Are corrections seen to be the same thing as revisions? What do supervisors mean by these two words and why (and how) do we need to speak about this openly with our students?

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Let’s start, perhaps, with the basic meanings of these terms and what they imply as work for writers. Revisions (see this very useful post by Pat Thomson on this) can imply minor to significant amounts of work for writers. Regardless of the amount of work, the point of revision is to re-think, re-read – perhaps read more than you already have – re-write and even re-organise your writing. It involves active engagement with your ideas, with feedback from critical friends/supervisors/reviewers; it involves both mental and emotional labour because it can be hard work to hear that your ideas or argument do not work, that your evidence and explanations are not persuasive enough, that your thinking is not as clear to your reader as it seemed to you. You need to motivate and cajole yourself into going back to a piece of writing you want to move on from to do this ‘more’ work that is asked of you. So revisions are hard, and many times, revisions suck.

Corrections, by contrast, imply less of this active thinking and engaged work. To correct something is to fix it, and usually in writing feedback this implies a global find and replace exercise to make, for example, your referencing format or use of quotation marks or spellings consistent and uniform across your text; it can imply correcting the usage of a technical term, editing your writing to correct typos and grammatical mistakes. Corrections can be done without much emotional investment or brain power, although seeing stupid mistakes you have made can be frustrating! Corrections, if I am doing my job well as a supervisor and critical friend, are not what I direct writers to first, unless it really is the only or main thing they need to focus on to improve their text. Corrections should not be focused on in feedback at the expense of guidance, questions and suggestions about the ideas, the structure, the argument, the theory or research methodology, the findings and assumptions, and so on. In writing development practice, revisions are called ‘higher order’ or primary concerns; corrections are usually ‘lower order’ or secondary and come after the more substantial revisions have been made, usually over a few drafts.

When I tell my students that I am sending them feedback, unless we are pretty close to the final draft I assume they understand that what I am asking them to engage in is a process of revisions. But I have come to realise recently that some of my students, particularly those new to postgraduate study and these long and involved writing and research processes, are not always clear on this. Often, when they say ‘I’ll do the corrections’, they do literally mean that they will try their best to ‘fix’ their writing and will look for the errors and fixes and do these first, with less time spent thinking about the deeper, and more necessary, revisions. If I get a draft back within a week on which my feedback focused on the need for new reading, thinking through the links between different concepts or ideas, adding significant explanations, elaborations or new reading/references, I am always worried that the text has been approached in correction mode, rather than revision mode. It’s not always the case: sometime a student or writer has time and can spend a few days solidly working on and thinking about the revisions. But usually, the text comes back with many of the original concerns still relevant; with the revisions still need to be properly thought about and effected.

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This misunderstanding stems, in my experience, from a few concerns, two of which can be openly addressed in supervision, at the outset and on an ongoing basis as needed. The first is the transition from writing as an undergrad to writing as a postgrad. Writing as an undergrad seldom involves drafting. Typically, an assignment is written once, assessed, and you move on to the next one. At senior levels or in specific literacy development courses, you may write one draft, receive formative feedback and then write another ‘final’ draft, but multiple drafts of one piece of writing-thinking is not a typical feature of undergraduate study. Moving from seeing your writing as assignments-for-marks to developmental pieces of thinking is a huge shift, then. If you have be trained to get your writing ‘right’ in one or two goes, the idea of having to take more then two goes can seem really odd and unsettling: why can’t I just write it and have it be right? Why do I have to keep answering questions, reading, thinking, rewriting – what’s wrong with me? We need to talk to postgraduate students differently about writing, as fellow writers. Show them a folder for a paper you have written, or your own MA or PhD folder for chapters. Talk them through your own writing-feedback-redrafting-finalising process for papers or chapter you have written and are writing. Don’t assume they know what revisions are and what to do to move constructively from one draft to the next.

This links to a second concern that can and should be addressed in supervision: working with feedback is, in itself, a literacy practice that needs to be learned and can be taught. Do your students know what a question mark in the margin of their draft means when you put it there? Do they know what you are questioning, and why? Do they know what to do with questions you ask them in comment bubbles, or with a comment like: ‘This is unclear’, or ‘Irrelevant information’. Do they know what your feedback language means, how the words and phrases and form of feedback-giving you choose to use communicates your expectations of their writing, thinking and argumentation work? You can take a supervision session to actually open this out for discussion with students: This is how I give feedback, this is why I choose to give my feedback using this form or method, this is what I expect you to do with the revisions and redrafting. You can (and should) make it okay for students to ask questions, and especially at doctoral level, to disagree with you or speak back to the feedback, because they are expected to own their writing and the argument they are building. Making this a process of learning, a pedagogic or teaching moment (or series of moments as the case may be) enables you to have necessary conversations that can help your students get to know you as a supervisor and help them understand how to make the shift from their prior level of study to their new level. More than this, these conversations can enable your students to develop a meta-level understanding of the processes that go into building a sophisticated, layered argument that involves many steps, and often a mix of literature, theory, methodology, analysis and cohesive and coherent thinking and writing. For doctoral students who will go on to supervise and mentor other students in their career, this meta-learning is crucial.

Revisions and corrections, then, are not the same thing. Assuming your students know what each of these acts involves, what the difference is in terms of your meanings of each of these acts in your feedback, and how to respond in their ongoing reading, writing and thinking work can lead to confusion and frustration for both you and your students, and your students may struggle to make the progress everyone desires. Rather, make the time to open up a conversation about what writing a thesis is all about, and the thinking work that goes into it, and the time that thinking takes. Link this to drafting, and normalise the idea of writing and thinking as practices, not skills; they take work and time and effort, and need feedback and revisions to improve. Then talk about how and why you give feedback, and maybe use this an as opportunity to revisit the way you give feedback to your students – this is an area where I am always learning, and where small changes can make a big difference to how students feel about and approach their research. The point is to talk about it, invite students to ask questions and take ownership of their writing, make the work of writing and thinking more visible and shared. Writing is a social practice, not a solitary act of applying skills, and the more we show this to our students, the more able they are to embrace the process and the work that goes with it.

‘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!

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.

Working with feedback: on criticism and critique

Hands up: who actually likes critique and criticism of their writing? So few hands? How strange :). I think we all know that critique on our writing is something we have to expect: if we are writing for an audience, especially one expected to be critical such as PhD examiners or peer reviewers, the critique will come whether we want it or not. Often, though, critique is something we fear (even if we also know that good critique is good for our thinking and writing). I don’t know a single writer – student or otherwise – who has not seen an email from an editor or supervisor that contains feedback and immediately said ‘Yay! Critique!’ Most students I know, myself included, have seen those emails and first had a swooping sort of sensation of anxiety or apprehension in the belly before deciding whether to open now, or later; read now, or later. How do you deal with criticism and critique of your writing? How do you take on what helps, leave what doesn’t, and move forward with your writing and thinking?

Perhaps a good starting point would be to differentiate between criticism and critique. Learning about the differences can shape our responses as writers in helpful ways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

These two definitions, helpfully provided by Google, are a useful starting point. You can see that criticism is defined as fault-finding or censure in the first instance, even though in the second it is defined as analysis, evaluation and judgement. This overlaps with the definition of critique which is defined as assessment and analysis done in a ‘detailed and analytical way’. A further definition you can source goes on to argue that critique is understood thus:

I like this more fleshed out understanding of critique as a ‘method of disciplined…analysis’ that is not only negative, but finds merit as well, and is concerned with ‘doubt’. I think this speaks rather well to what we do when we read the work of others – we are not ‘sure’ that the writer is right or wrong, or that we are right or wrong in our assessment; rather we read with a measure of doubt so that we can, analytically and evaluatively, assess the argument being made and the evidence being presented in support of that argument on its merits, and in relation to the field of research (and often to the research we are doing). We do this when we read the literature that helps us scope the field and find a space for our project; we do this when we read as critical peers to offer feedback (whether formally or informally); and we should be mindful of this as the way readers will (hopefully) approach what we write.

Notwithstanding that examiners and peer reviewers can sometimes be rather nit-picky, petty and unhelpful in their feedback, I believe many academics who will be tasked with commenting on my writing will understanding this definition of critique, and will assess my work with a view to pointing out both the merits and faults. They will hopefully be peers who have the interests of the field of research and practice at heart, rather than their own narrow stakes in that field, and as such will offer feedback that will help me improve my writing, develop my thinking, and make a more valuable, critical and thoughtful contribution to that field. I have had both mean and helpful feedback on my writing so far, and to be honest, the helpful has far outweighed the mean. A brief inquiry to colleagues and friends has yielded a similar finding (although anecdotal) so if you have not yet been exposed to much external feedback on your writing, be warned that some reviewers are mean, but also be encouraged that most actually do have the interests of the field and you as a contributor to it at heart when they review your work.

So, when you get the critique (and sometime the first instance of criticism) what do you do? How do you respond? I am going to write in a follow-on post about formally responding to reviewers and examiners, so here I want to just touch on two thoughts:

– Firstly, you have to give your feelings – all of them – space to breathe and be felt. Any critique that point to errors, missteps and the need for more reading, thinking and revision will be hard to read or hear, and it’s very easy to focus only on what the reviewers/supervisors don’t like, rather than also looking at what they do like in your writing. You may well feel hurt, angry, confused, disheartened and rejected. You might feel stupid, or lost, or filled with self-doubt. This is all completely par for the course. No one likes the negative critique, even if (as some of my more experienced colleagues tell me) you get more used to it, and it hurts less, the more you publish. Feel the crappy feelings, but don’t over-indulge them to the point where you start sinking into a mire of despair and writing-abandonment.

– Secondly, you should have back-up: willing and supportive colleagues, fellow writers, friends who can help you to process the feedback in constructive ways. Choose people who have some knowledge of the kind of writing your are doing, and the purpose of it, and share your feedback with them. If you need to vent, vent, but then also use them as a sounding board for your initial and then more considered responses. What do the reviewers mean by this comment? Why am I being asked to do this? Do you think I can ignore that, and how should I defend myself to the editors and reviewers? How should I revise this chapter/section of the paper? And so on. Kamler and Thomson have written about the usefulness of having a ‘publication broker’ to help you work through reviews and revisions, and this is a good idea (especially if you are new to writing for publication or for external review).

I’ll stop here for now, and address responding to reviewers in the next post in more detail. But if I can sum up so far: working with criticism, especially at an earlier stage in your career as a writer and academic, is bloody hard work. It’s emotional as well as intellectual work, and I think finding space to be emotional, but not let the feelings of hurt and inadequacy get in your way of the intellectual work and progress is essential in turning the criticism into critique, and the faults, errors and missteps into opportunities for learning and growth.