This week, I finished week nine of Wendy Belcher's workbook Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks. Week Nine is about giving and receiving feedback on the article draft.
Not everyone knows how to give good feedback. Here’s a short story about a time when I received destructive criticism.
Once upon a time, as ABD graduate student, I had submitted a dissertation chapter to my committee members for feedback. My dissertation committee often offered me useful and helpful feedback on my work, which helped me to revise each chapter.
On one particular chapter, I received feedback from a particular committee member that left me reeling.
A person I’ll call Professor X (no names mentioned to protect the guilty) sent me an email that contained a numbered, orderly list of ten or eleven ways that the chapter had failed. This email did not contain a single positive comment. In abrasive language, Professor X criticized the chapter’s subject, structure, argument, analysis, evidence, and writing. Professor X stated that I understood so little about the chapter’s subject that I couldn’t possibly write an entire chapter about it. Worse, Professor X now felt that the quality of my work was so substandard that (s)he could not in good faith write me any letters of recommendation for that year’s job market. When I had recovered sufficiently to re-read Professor X’s email, I realized that (s)he had not only sent the email to me, but had copied it to my entire committee. What I had thought was a private shaming now became a public one.
I was shocked. Sure, the chapter had some problems, but I had never before received such deconstructive criticism. I felt hurt, angry, betrayed, shamed, and small. I wanted my committee members to see me as a competent scholar, but now I felt that Professor X had shown me to be little more than a two-bit hack.
I ended up chucking the entire chapter. I rewrote it from scratch to assuage Professor X’s doubts about my abilities as a scholar. I improved the new chapter in many ways, but I felt angry and resentful while writing it. In my dissertation defense, Professor X characterized the new chapter as “definitely the weakest” of my entire dissertation. (Interestingly, no one else on my committee seemed to feel this way.) In supreme irony, one committee member later confided to me that (s)he liked the version I’d scrapped better. (Me too.)
When I recently wrote Professor X for advice about a journal that might be appropriate for my twelve week article, I received some helpful advice along with the (now expected) unkind suggestion that my work wasn’t good enough for publication. I regret to say that Professor X’s inability to give constructive criticism damaged the professional relationship I’d hoped to have with this person. I no longer engage with Professor X as a colleague. I’m not interested in this person’s feedback on my scholarship anymore.
I have never forgotten how it felt to be on the receiving end of such nasty criticism. I can feel the shame as if it were yesterday. It still hurts to think about. Only now in retrospect do I understand that Professor X’s criticism said far more about him/her as a person than it did about me as a scholar.
As painful as that experience was, it prompted me to think critically about how I give feedback. As an editor, I now make a living by giving people feedback on their writing. I want to give clients the most helpful feedback possible and empower them to become better writers.
Most importantly, I decided that I’m not in the business of tearing people down. I’m in the business of building people up.
Giving good feedback is not about being “brutally honest.” (I dislike when anyone starts with, “Well, to be brutally honest…” No. Just stop.) Shame doesn’t change people’s behavior. Nor does it make anyone a better writer.
Wendy Belcher’s list of things to do as the person giving feedback helped me figure out some more ways to be helpful as an editor. When I edit, I try to:
Focus on what the piece does, rather than doesn’t do. We all know those people in grad school seminars who always brought up what a particular article, book, or author didn’t do. ("This article fails do X because it doesn’t speak to my pet interest Y.”) Those people drove me crazy. It is much harder, but much more helpful, to stay focused on what the piece or author actually does. Lots of times when editing, my mind starts spinning off into possibilities about what the author could do, particularly if the subject is close to my own research interests. I try to remember that other writers are not me. They have their own interests and ideas, which is okay.
Speak to strengths and start with the positive. As I said, I refuse to shame writers and make them feel like failures. People have different strengths. I think it is only when I’m helping people figure out how to use their strengths to improve the work as a whole that I’m empowering people. More than one writer has told me that I help them the most when I make suggestions that speak to their strengths, as opposed to trying to fix their writing. “This part really works.” “Powerful language here.” “Great example!” People need to know what they are doing right so they can figure out how to fix what isn’t working so well.
Recognize the author as the authority. My favorite word to use while editing is “consider.” Consider changing this. Consider changing that. I also use lots and lots of question marks. (“Should this be X instead of Y?”) Sometimes I edit client work that I want to rewrite entirely, but I am not the author. Clients should sound like themselves in writing, rather than sounding like me.
When we share creative work with others and ask others for feedback, we feel vulnerable. We’ve put so much effort into our piece (writing, photography, art, etc.); it is a part of our hearts. When we ask people to give us feedback, it feels like they are judging not just our work, but us as people. I’m much less practiced at receiving criticism gracefully, so I found Wendy Belcher’s advice for receiving feedback helpful. I think so many of us struggle with being on the receiving end, even when we really do want feedback. She includes:
Give the reviewer instructions. I often have to ask clients what they need or how I can best help them. Sometimes clients don’t know what kind of feedback they need and just ask for “editing.” I have to ask them for specific instructions. Do they need feedback on the argument and organization? Sentence structure and style? Grammar and punctuation? How can I best help? Sometimes the best thing I can do as an editor is figure out what kind of feedback people need and then listen carefully to their responses. I’m not helping clients who need help with structure and organization when I flag every instance of passive voice. I just asked my writing buddy to review my article. I asked her to review the argument, structure, and organization of my article. Now she knows what to look for.
Don’t take it personally. Belcher is completely right in that criticism given harshly can sometimes be right, while that given kindly can still be wrong. It is incredibly difficult sometimes to separate legitimate criticism from less than empathetic delivery. I’m still improving how I hear, handle, and respond to criticism. In the case of my example of Professor X, not only did I find the delivery of the criticism just plain mean, but I also disagreed strongly with many of this person’s points. I have, however, also received genuinely helpful criticism from people who really do want to help me improve my writing.
Listen rather than talk. I’m still struggling with this one, too. It seems natural to me to switch into defensive self-protective mode when dealing with criticism, particularly if the criticism is of the deconstructive sort. At times, I still have sometimes focus on making a list of criticism or deep breathing to keep myself from responding too soon.
If I were to add anything to this list, I think I’d add that it’s important to validate our own feelings. I think it is okay to feel vulnerable, scared, angry, or hurt when receiving feedback. We do ourselves no favors when we try to tell ourselves that we “shouldn’t” feel a certain way. It often isn’t okay to act on these feelings (I did not let myself send Professor X an email in response), but we can recognize them and understand that our feelings entirely legitimate and real.
I’ve submitted my twelve week article to my writing buddy for feedback. I’m feeling super vulnerable about it already!