Posted on

Collaborating across differences: Cover letters to facilitate writing feedback

The first three articles in this series, “Building relationships with co-author agreements,” “Reflect on writing habits in co-author processes,” and “Keep writing communication simple with the 5 Ps,” covered strategies for building trust and shared understanding among co-authors. In this final installment on collaborating across differences, we explore feedback techniques for co-authors that reinforce trust and understanding among writers to support positive writing productivity.

Of the techniques we cover in our collaborative writing workshops for faculty and graduate student co-authors, the feedback cover letter is one of the most valued by participants.Its popularity is due to its simplicity as well as the letter’s facilitation of clear communication across a feedback exchange that can often feel awkward, befuddling, or even risky for submitting and reviewing authors alike.

Writers who communicate directly and clearly with each other about a document’s status, revisions, and next steps, experience less stress, greater confidence, and increased productivity. Letters are a natural genre to facilitate clear communication between writers who come to the writing relationship from diverse backgrounds or different disciplines or different career stages. Letters have a history of helping writers share ideas over vast distances.

A structured feedback request helps an author acknowledge, by declaring upfront, the current state of the document in writing, which can be a clarifying and confidence-building exercise. 
Simply, a feedback request cover letter addresses the following questions:

  1. What is the piece of writing about?
  2. What are the strengths of the piece? or What does the writer feel went well?
  3. What type of feedback and where in the document will be most helpful in moving the piece to the next stage?

The Feedback Request Letter Can Be as Formal or Informal as Writers Choose

And while some writers elect to craft formal multi-paragraph letters, sometimes mimicking and practicing the formality of article submission to a publisher, most writers elect to dash a few introductory lines at the top of a draft to set the stage for the feedback exchange. For example, an informal feedback request letter may replicate the list:

  1. Attached are first ten pages of a chapter on socializing flow states on research teams.
  2. The introduction is solid, and the definitions are clear.
  3. Please review the case study examples. Do they build from the introduction? Can you identify conceptual gaps? Where would you like more details and connections? No need to focus on sentence-level, word choice issues, unless they contribute to issues of development. Thank you for sharing your expertise and insights. Can you return to me at our next scheduled meeting?

Notice how the submitter’s request for “review the case study examples” primes the reader’s critical lens to skim the introduction and to focus on descriptions of observations and findings? In crafting the request, the submitting writer must assess and state the status of their work while keeping in mind the reviewer who will provide feedback. The cover letter technique draws together complex elements of writing: meta-awareness of the project, audience awareness, editorial interest, and clear communication between co-authors. For those providing feedback, the cover letter will focus their editorial eye by narrowing the type and amount of feedback they provide, which often shortens turn-around time.

Not just for collaborative writers, we have found that editing and writing group members who do not co-author together but who provide feedback on their colleagues’ writing can also use the cover letter template to focus their group work.

We know the top reasons publishers reject manuscripts concern contributions to the field, integration of ideas, and use of evidence. At the bottom of the list are issues of structure, grammar, and style. (See Elsevier’s “Eight reasons I rejected your article”).  We also know that unguided feedback from our colleagues often elicits comments on the lesser grammar and style issues. A cover letter can help redirect a reader’s critical eye from the minutia of grammar to the larger challenges of explanation of relevant findings. If you wish to receive higher quality comments from your readers, try prompting your readers with a clear, concise request. They will be grateful, and you are more apt to receive the review you need to move your manuscript to the next level.

When providing feedback, a reader can craft a streamlined reviewer’s cover letter to summarize the feedback provided and to acknowledge that they understood the co-author’s request.  A feedback response cover letter addresses the request, but reverses the order:

  1. A statement about how the feedback addresses the primary interests of the writer accompanied by an expression of gratitude for the opportunity to read the manuscript.
  2.  A description of what the reader identifies as the strengths of the document. (These may be in addition or contrary to the writer’s initial assessment.)
  3.  A comment about the reader’s overall impressions about the piece and additional insights that might help move the manuscript forward.

How Might Writers Approach Comments on the Document Itself?

Just as a building a shared vocabulary that speaks to how writers will engage in the process of co-creating a document, openly talking about the types of feedback can facilitate communication. Awareness of four basic categories of feedback can enhance the reviewer’s understanding of what type of will be most appropriate for revisions:

Corrective: reader corrects words, phrases, sentences for the writer
Directive: reader, through marginal comments, directs the writer to make specific edits
Interactive: reader, through marginal or end comments, asks the writer to consider elements or places for revision. The comments may spark conversation.
Evaluative: reader considers the quality of the writing and provides an assessment (modified from Purdue OWL, “Instructor Guide to Providing Feedback”)

The nature of the collaboration, type of project, and number of co-authors will greatly determine what types of feedback a reader will provide. In early stages of manuscript drafting, the exchanges may be strategic with an eye to conceptual issues and arrangements, which may illicit interactive comments for conversation. In later stages, the feedback process may be more speedy, and feedback may turn toward the corrective and directive as deadlines draw near.

Two sides of the same process: Giving high-quality feedback to improve a written document is one of the most challenging and rewarding responsibilities of academic life. Receiving feedback is one of the more humbling and necessary experiences to foster our growth and develop our skills as academics. From the lower-stakes exchanges among collaborators to the higher-stakes exchanges of peer review or panel review, feedback is essential to our work together in academe. Among co-authors, having supportive exchange processes can smooth collaborative communications across differences of appointment, culture, nation, or discipline to help us build strong relationships rooted in mutual respect.

Kristina QuynnKristina Quynn is the founding director of CSU Writes, a professional research writing facilitation program at Colorado State University. Trained as a literary scholar, her research and publications have focused on contemporary experimental literature and performative criticism and can be found in publications ranging from the Chronicle of Higher Ed to Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture. She is co-editor of the essay collection Reading and Writing Experimental Texts (Palgrave). Her current research and publications focus on academic writing productivity and sustainable writing practices for researchers.