Tips for anxious writers: Analyze feedback
Dealing with feedback can be difficult. If you’ve had your work rejected, it is particularly difficult to use the feedback you received effectively. Anxiety naturally runs high in such cases, and it’s not that rare for a writer struggling with anxiety to avoid dealing with feedback. But it is crucial to use feedback effectively: the feedback we receive is the best guide to how to improve our work and get it accepted. In this post, I want to suggest a plan for dealing with feedback, along with some perspective that might help reduce some of the related anxiety.
Although I have no balm for the sting of rejection or criticism, having a plan for how to deal with feedback can help you keep moving and gain maximum benefit from the feedback you received.
Getting the right feedback
Before you get feedback, you can sometimes shape it in advance by writing a good cover letter to accompany your submission (at least if you’re submitting work to a colleague for feedback; this is a must for a doctoral candidate communicating with a professor). Describe your main concerns and where you want feedback. The better you define your concerns for the reader, the more clearly they can respond to the issues that interest you. Most importantly, if you have doubts about big stuff—content, structure, flow—then it’s good to tell your reader to focus on that because if you’re concerned with big issues, you don’t benefit much from feedback on sentence structure or presentation.
Good and bad feedback
Knowing what kind of feedback you want is important, too, when you move on to dealing with feedback you have received, because not all feedback is created equal. Some is constructive and helpful, and some is not. Being able to sort the good from the bad is crucial. Regardless of your relationship with the person who gave the feedback, you must approach it confidently, with the recognition that your reviewer might be wrong or unhelpful. If you know what feedback you’re looking for, that helps make evaluations.
Most importantly, you want to dismiss any dismissive feedback. If the entire scope of the feedback you get is “No good,” then you pretty much want to ignore that feedback. Put aside any feedback that doesn’t give you a direction forward. Obviously, you don’t want to completely ignore the fact that you got a negative response, but dwelling on some undefined rejection gives little insight. If a publisher or journal editor sends you a “no thanks” letter, push on to submitting to another publisher or editor. If you get your work rejected, you probably already have some ideas for how to improve it—those ideas are more valuable than any non-specific rejection. If all you got was a “no” or “no good,” you might only need to find a different audience. Specific negative feedback that describes issues in your work, of course, deserves greater attention because it gives you clues.
In some ways an undefined “I like it,” is almost as bad as an undefined rejection, at least in terms of providing guidance, if you’re wanting guidance. For an anxious writer, a non-specific “I like it” can be difficult to handle: if you’re sure there are problems, you might think the non-specific “It’s good” is just a way to avoid looking at your work, and that some later reader will find those problems. But I think that if you get an unspecific “I like it,” then you simply have to move on to the next step. If you showed a manuscript to a friend, then move on to submitting it somewhere. If you’ve submitted a manuscript for publication, then put aside your own critiques and just finish the project quickly. If you’re relatively early in your process and you wanted guidance for your future drafts, either find another colleague to look at your work, or trust your own critiques and keep working with them until it’s time to share a new draft.
If the feedback you get is more substantial, then you want to start to take it apart, separating the parts that you want to use from the parts that you won’t.
An analytical process can help reduce feelings of being overwhelmed
If you receive a lot of detailed feedback, it can be quite overwhelming, even if the overall tone is positive. By planning an analytical approach, you can often reduce some of the anxiety by taking the process one step at a time and reminding yourself that your first task is only to evaluate the feedback, not to actually respond to it. Remember, also, that you have some power in the relationship (even if you’re a doctoral candidate struggling to respond to feedback from the professors who will/will not approve your work): Every author has options in how to respond to feedback, and knowing that you have options can reduce anxiety about being forced to do something against your will. Analyze the feedback that you get so that you can see more clearly the options available to you.
You can make your own categories of analysis—anything that gives structure to your approach. Once you define a structure, you can then look at specific comments and sort them into their proper categories, which will give you some guidance on how to approach each specific item. For my own purposes, I generally use the following categories:
- Low-hanging fruit. This is feedback that seems right to me and that I can do without much effort or stress.
- Mistakes. These are places where the reviewer is wrong. Reviewers may be wrong for any number of reasons. First check for some ambiguity or flaw in your writing that might have created some misunderstanding. Then, if you feel that your text is ok, file that feedback in this category. Sometimes you can ignore feedback in this category. Sometimes you may need to write an explanation of why the feedback is wrong (if, e.g., you’re responding to your editor at your publisher with respect to a review of your manuscript, you might need to explain why some comment is off-target).
- Good advice, but hard to implement. Some suggestions are good, and we know they’re good, but we’re intimidated by the work they will require. This kind of feedback will become the heart of a list of major priorities.
- Off-target advice, or advice not suited to your situation. Some feedback just isn’t responsive to the issues that concern you. If you’re trying to get the main flow of ideas worked out, then feedback on grammar, punctuation, and style isn’t going to be of much help with the issues that should be getting your attention. If you’re submitting a final manuscript with a looming deadline, feedback on structure and content is off-target.
- Stuff to ask about. Sometimes you can ask questions. You may not be able to directly ask ask questions of reviewers, but you certainly can ask questions of the editors at journals or publishers. It is generally expected that when submitting revisions after review you give some rundown on how you responded to the different feedback you received, and you could include questions in such a response. But if you have questions, it’s often better to ask as soon as you realize that you have a question. If you’re not sure what the reviewer means, ask if you can.
These five categories are the most important to me because they help me focus on individual issues in my writing, rather than on the larger sense of how big the project is and how much I need to accomplish. Instead of having one big list of 10 or 20 or more different issues to address, I have different, smaller lists separated into things that are easy (which causes me little anxiety), things where the reviewer was wrong (which causes some anger, some anxiety), off-target advice (which causes little anxiety because I dismiss it), stuff to ask about (which causes some anxiety, but feels productive), and the good but difficult advice (which causes significant anxiety, but also can spark interesting ideas).
Make a plan before engaging
Dealing with criticism is one of the hardest tasks facing any writer, especially those who struggle with anxiety. But using feedback productively is also one of the most valuable tasks. Having a structured plan—even if loosely structured, like the steps I have described above—will help reduce anxiety. Instead of asking yourself “How do I deal with all this?”, your plan gives you structure and guidance. It allows small steps in approaching the daunting feedback. It helps reduce a big, intimidating task into specific items of criticism that need to be addressed. And a plan also helps you distance yourself a little: you’re focusing on evaluating each comment according to some framework, rather than just responding to critiques of work in which you’ve invested so much effort.
Read the other articles in this series:
Tips for anxious writers: Series introduction
Tips for anxious writers: Gentle persistence
Tips for anxious writers: Writing is only a tool
Tips for anxious writers: Use exploratory writing
Tips for anxious writers: Practice and performance
Tips for anxious writers: Philosophy, a labor of love
Tips for anxious writers: How to get moving
Tips for anxious writers: Write for the right audience
Tips for anxious writers: Accept uncertainty; trust your practice
Tips for anxious writers: You are not an imposter
Dave Harris, Ph.D., editor, writing coach, and dissertation coach, helps writers develop effective writing practices, express their ideas clearly, and finish their projects. He is author of Getting the Best of Your Dissertation (Thought Clearing, 2015), Literature Review and Research Design: A Guide to Effective Research Practice (Routledge, 2020) and second author with Jean-Pierre Protzen of The Universe of Design: Horst Rittel’s Theories of Design and Planning (Routledge, 2010).Dave can be found on the web at www.thoughtclearing.com