How to request and receive feedback on your writing

We shall take it as a given that a good academic work is focused. I have trouble imagining a dissertation writer who wouldn’t agree that their dissertation ought to be focused. But focus doesn’t get enough attention early in the process. Yes, early in the process we are seeking to refine a focus by exploring a range of possibilities. All of these are important reasons not to focus too intently, too early.

But this piece is about feedback and how to get and use feedback effectively; this is about submitting work to professors for feedback. You may have many ideas in your head and you may still be seeking focus, but, when it’s time, you want to submit something that is focused. You can have all the competing ideas that you want rattling around in your head, but what you put down on paper for submission needs to be focused.

You may ask, “what if I’m not sure of my problem yet?” One answer is that you can make the focus of your submission the question of how to resolve what your problem/project should be. A better answer is that you can always change topics if you have one that isn’t going to work, but until you focus on a single topic enough to explore it in depth, you can’t tell whether a project is practical.

What is so important about focus and feedback? Focused and unfocused works receive very different kinds of feedback.

Giving feedback on an unfocused is problematic. The reader doesn’t know what to do; without focus, the reader cannot tell what is important to you, and therefore will focus on what is important to him or her or what is easy to find. An unfocused submission is an invitation to have your reader give you feedback that is not useful to your needs. They may, for example, talk about their idea of your project, which may not be very clear and may not match your own, or they may talk about punctuation when you’re interested in content; it’s much easier to complain about punctuation than to give a coherent comment on an unfocused work.

When a work is focused, the reader responds differently. The reader can tell what you are trying to accomplish, and can address that. If there is a focus, then the reader can much more easily address important issues of the practicality of the project, issues of clarifying theoretical or methodological issues, and other such important issues, which are at the heart of the project. Focus invites the possibility of rejection, but if your project is going to cause problems with your readers—for good reasons or bad—then you need to know that as soon as possible, in order to address those problems. If your reader can focus on what you are also focused on, then your reader is also far less likely to complain about the minor things, like punctuation.

Therefore, I propose, that the primary rule for getting good feedback is that you yourself ensure that the work you turn in is focused. Better to sacrifice detail for focus—detail can be added later, if necessary, but the overall framework, that on which the whole project is built, must be well-designed, and to that end you want your reader to be able to focus their attention the crucial issues—choice of theory, method, data—that are the heart of an academic work. If your reader’s attention is focused on these issues, because you have submitted a focused piece, then you improve your chances of getting good feedback.

Requesting Feedback

In her book The Right to Write, Julia Cameron notes the difficulty of writing good feedback. She’s right; it’s hard to write about things that are working and easy to write about things that aren’t. Because of this, if you give your reader polite instructions (framed as requests) on how to read your work, and what kind of feedback to give, you are likely to get more useful feedback.

Framing a good cover letter can play a crucial role in getting good feedback. This follows up on the idea laid out in the previous essay: by focusing, and by working to focus your professors’ attention, you improve your chances of getting good, useful feedback.

Generally speaking, you want to be sure to present yourself as acting from reasons, and having a sense of underlying rational foundations that drive your work. These two factors combine to signal to your professors that you are engaging with the project as a mature researcher. This will direct their attention into questions of method and questions of topic. And therefore it will be less likely that they will concern themselves with lesser issues—like writing style (which is, at least, an issue that can be worked on without reworking your project).

More specifically, you want to submit your work with a cover letter that will focus the attention of the reader on the issues that are important to you, and deflect attention away from the issues that are of lesser importance, or are obvious.

The issues that are important are the questions that you working on. Issues of content, especially theory, method and structure, which you may not be aware of, but which are the large-scale issues that really shape a work, also require attention.

Punctuation is of crucial importance, but unless you’re actually getting help with your punctuation, it should not be the focus. Therefore, it is often useful to make some sort of note promising further attention to punctuation, perhaps promising to hire an editor to check punctuation. You might say something like “I’m still concerned about getting the content right, and because I am concerned with possible rewriting, I have not yet brought in an editor, but I plan on doing so as the draft nears completion.” You want them to skip over the punctuation when they read. Don’t get me wrong. I think that you, as one who wishes to be considered well-educated, should darn well know how to punctuate, and there is no question but that punctuation affects the readability of a document. But is that feedback the best thing to get from your professor?

You want your professor to check the content, to check the methods, to check the reasoning and the scholarship, and so you want to do your darnedest to get them to focus on those issues, which are the issues for which their education and experience are most necessary.

A final note on requesting feedback: Act confident. Direct attention to the strengths and improvements of the current version especially any specific changes made in response to previous feedback. And if you have doubts about problematic areas that you want to work out, inform the reader that you’re aware of the problem and already searching for a solution. And while you may even want to point out and apologize for some specific failing (especially ones that you might have discussed with your committee but not yet resolved), you want to avoid an apologetic tone in the letter as a whole; too much apology can get a reader to look for weaknesses that explain the apologies.

Receiving Feedback

Books on writing tend to have plenty of horror stories about the feedback that writers have received and the horrible aftermath of this feedback on the writer. Bad feedback can paralyze a writer. Whatever steps you may take to prompt your readers towards good feedback, you have to be ready to use what you get.

Good or bad, you have to be able to receive and manage the feedback you receive. I have already talked about two techniques intended to help you get better feedback, but no matter what you do, you have to be able to use the feedback that you do receive—whether it is poisonous or not.

The key to this is to create emotional distance. There are two levels of emotional distance to create. The first level is the distance between yourself and your paper. The second is the distance between your paper and the feedback it receives.

The first distance can be very hard to see, but it is profound. It is a distance that we can create in many fields of our lives, and it can play a crucial role in maintaining mental health in general. Let’s imagine, for a moment, that your dissertation is like a dish that you’re cooking for the first time. And you don’t have a recipe. If it comes out poorly, do you take this as a reflection of your ability? Of course not. A dissertation is no easier to get right on a first try without a recipe. A dissertation may go awry because you have made some bad choices—whether as theoretician, researcher or writer—but those bad choices are merely part of your learning process. They’re no more a reflection of personal inadequacy than missing a question on an exam (and, again, I hope you can see that missing a question does not decrease your worth).

The second distance is harder to see, perhaps, but no less crucial. Your work is not the same as the feedback you get. The distance between work and feedback is, perhaps, easiest to see in the world of art. What did they think of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring the first time it was played? What did they say about the Impressionists? The response that a work gets is not just the work itself; it depends on the interaction between the work and the individual reader or viewer.

You, therefore, are doubly insulated from the feedback you receive. This insulation puts you in position to do with the feedback what you need to do: you need to take it as information that will guide your efforts towards completion. Feedback has to be analyzed in terms of two primary dimensions: one, what the feedback can tell you about how to modify your work; and two, what the feedback can tell you about the mood of your committee.

When you work with feedback, look at it as a collection of related, but not necessarily connected suggestions. Use the material that you can apply the most easily. Decide on a comment-by-comment basis whether it is useful or not. The more that you can apply individual aspects of feedback, the easier it is to reject or ignore some aspects.

The better you are able to maintain your emotional distance and break down the feedback into discrete suggestions about how to improve your work and how to interact with your committee, the easier it is to put the feedback to use, rather than letting the feedback become a burden or obstacle.

Copyright © 2007, Dave Harris. All rights reserved


Dave Harris, Ph.D., academic writing coach and editor, helps writers rework their writing process, fine-tune their final drafts, and everything in between (www.thoughtclearing.com; dave@thoughtclearing.com).