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  • Writer's pictureMarc Abernathy

On the same page: How to give and receive valuable feedback

Updated: Apr 5

Five principles for giving feedback on journal article drafts and research proposals

Peer review is a cornerstone of academic life. The feedback that you get from this process, though, can sometimes be less than helpful. Whether they're from an anonymous reviewer, an advisor, or a coauthor, I've seen comments such as

  • "You lost me here,"

  • "Not clear," or

  • "Vague."

Comments like these are problematic and unhelpful for a couple of reasons. Before pinpointing just why, consider what's good about them: they clearly indicate that whatever the writer was trying to convey was not communicated to the reader.

Now to what's problematic about them. First, a writer receiving comments like these can't do anything with them because they don't indicate what was wrong to begin with, and second, they don't give the writer any direction about how to fix them. Writers are left with the questions

  • "Where, how, did I lose you?"

  • "What, specifically, was not clear to you?"

  • "What is vague and how can I make it less so?"

1. Look for the intention

To move from unhelpful comments to giving ones that are valuable for writers, you need to search for what the author meant or intended to write. We all have a tendency to be lazy readers, and often the search for the writer's intention is the missing link between a comment like "not clear" and one the writer can actually use to improve the text.

All writers have an intention, and good feedback demands that you look for the writer's "why": "What do you think the author meant by messiness?", "Why did she include such a long discussion of past models and frameworks?"

If the intention of feedback is to have a dialogue — and it should be — then a good approach is to first see whether you can identify what the author was trying to do and then figure out why it wasn't working.

Here are some examples of “looking for the intention” comments:

  • "If I had to guess, I would say you mention commercial shipping because..."

  • "The purpose of this paragraph seems to be to..."

  • "It seems like the point of this sentence is to let readers know..."

  • "Your argument appears to be..."

2. Stop when you're lost