Posted on

Solicit and use informal feedback before formal peer review

This post, the fourth in a series of five, shows you how to seek informal feedback before formal review, which will increase your chances for getting manuscripts accepted and grants funded. After peer review, journal articles improve on 33 out of 34 measures (Goodman et al., 1994). There is no reason to believe that this is any different for informal reviews. You can seek informal feedback effectively by asking the right readers for the right kind of feedback—and then listening avidly and responding quickly and thoroughly.

Seek informal feedback before seeking formal peer review because it is the eyes of our readers that really “count”—we are not (supposed to be) communicating primarily with ourselves. And we are the worst readers of our own writing—we are too close to it. In contrast, readers are not as emotionally invested in your work so they see it through a clearer lens (Johnson & Mullen, 2007, p. 161). As a result, readers “can quickly identify omissions and logical breaks that would take you weeks to figure out” (Belcher, 2009, pp. 7–8).

The way you seek feedback affects the quality of feedback you receive. Seek feedback early in the process when your writing can most benefit from it. If you are not ready for stern feedback, share your work with your most supportive readers and ask them to be both gentle and substantive. Ask them to be gentle by asking questions rather than making statements. For example, “Do you think readers might be confused here because…?” Ask them to be substantive by asking them pointed questions such as, “What two places in the manuscript are least clear? Least organized? Least persuasive? Please explain why.” Questions like these will yield specific answers and suggestions for improvement.

When faced with feedback, it is easy to stop “listening” and start talking about how unreasonable readers are. Instead, listen avidly, and respond thoroughly and quickly. To listen avidly, cultivate feedback by responding with nothing negative, asking questions, and inviting ever more feedback. As you respond to informal readers, say nothing negative and avoid words such as “no” and “but” (e.g., “But I tried that already”). Ask questions that will prompt more feedback (e.g. “What would it look like if I had done that successfully?”). When you don’t understand or want to know more, employ the phrase “Say more about that.” Thank your reader for feedback. (Yes, it’s true! Readers need encouragement too!),

After you listen avidly, respond thoroughly. Remind yourself that, when it comes to criticizing clarity, the reader is always right, at least in one sense: the text is unclear to him or her. The reader knows what’s unclear, but they do not always know the manuscript well enough to suggest the best way to fix the problem; you as the writer will have to decide that yourself (Belcher, 2019, pp. 377-388). When someone questions your clarity, say what you meant out loud without looking at what you wrote. Record what you say. What you say will almost always be clearer than what you wrote. Also remember, you need to respond to say, 90 percent, of all comments by doing something—even if it’s not what the reader suggested.

In addition to responding thoroughly, respond quickly. To respond quickly, don’t catastrophize by thinking that it will take longer to respond than it actually does. One accomplished writer goes so far as to say that, if she thinks a comment from a reviewer will take 2 weeks to fix, she applies herself to the problem for 30 minutes. If she can’t fix it in 30 minutes, she deletes that section of the manuscript (Belcher, 2019, p. 381). That is extreme, but her point is well taken. I often react to feedback by thinking that it will take weeks to respond. This is especially true when I merely “think” about the feedback. In fact, just thinking about a problem without writing about it ensures that it will take weeks to fix. I find it far more effective to write about the problem, speculating on different ways I could respond. Using this method, I find I can respond in hours rather than days or weeks.

See tomorrow’s post, “Polishing your scholarly manuscript–and letting it go”,  for ideas on how to polish your manuscript and kick it out the door!

View the other posts in this series: 

Triple your scholarly productivity by writing daily
Drafting scholarly manuscripts—briskly and well
Organizing scholarly manuscripts—briskly and well

This blog post was adapted from Gray, T. (2020). Writing your dissertation quickly and well. In K. Townsend, M. N. K. Saunders, R. Loudoun, & E. A. Morrison (Eds.) How to keep your doctorate on track: Insights from students’ and supervisors’ experiences. Cheltenham, U. K.: Edward Elgar. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

The above mentioned chapter is itself a summary of the book, Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar (2020), 15th anniversary edition, which can be purchased for $25 at or in Kindle for $9.99 on Amazon.
Also cited:

Belcher, W.L. (2009, 2019). Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Goodman, S.N., Berlin, J., Fletcher, S., & Fletcher, R. (1994). Manuscript quality before and after peer review and editing at Annals of Internal Medicine. Annals of Internal Medicine, 121(1), 11–21.

Johnson, W.B., & Mullen, C.A. (2007). Write to the top: How to become a prolific academic. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan.

Tara Gray serves as the first director of the Teaching Academy at New Mexico State University (NMSU). The Teaching Academy provides professional development aimed at helping educators live extraordinary teaching lives embedded in exceptional careers. Tara has published 50 scholarly works, including four books.  She is the author of Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar. She has been honored at New Mexico State and nationally with ten awards for teaching, scholarship or service. She has presented Publish & Flourish workshops to 10,000 participants at more than 120 venues, in 35 states, and in seven countries. Workshop participants report that Dr. Gray is “spirited, entertaining, and informative—she’s anything but gray!”