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

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

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

The moment you get lost and start to re-read, stop and figure out why. This advice comes from my years of editing. I've learned to stop whenever I read something I don't understand and flag it. You may not have time to figure out why it’s confusing (it may even be explained a few lines later), but at least mark it and make a note of why it's confusing to you — you can always dismiss or reject your notes later. What you can't do later is re-create your experience of the first read-through. And for giving feedback, the first read-though is the most important one because that’s the moment when you are in the same situation other readers will be in when they read the text. Just like you, they may struggle to understand, and your job in giving feedback is to alert the author. If you don’t flag it, you may forget where you initially got confused and why.


Fight the sometimes-instinctive response of “Oh, she'll clarify that later,” or, “Well, I don’t fully understand, but I’m not the expert here.” Don’t rationalize or explain away. Listen to your instincts, be more skeptical, and discover why something isn’t working. Don’t assume that clarity will come later, because it may not. Stop and figure out why.

3. Find the good

In addition to looking for the intention and stopping whenever you get lost, you also want to look for what's good in the text. This is a step often overlooked in academia. Frequently, the "reward" for good writing is silence: if there's nothing to fix, there's nothing to say.


This conception of feedback reinforces the idea that feedback is only negative. In the critical — sometimes hypercritical — environment of academia, it's important to pause and appreciate what’s good about someone’s work, because it’s a small way of acknowledging how difficult writing is — for all of us.


Find one specific thing that you genuinely think is good. Here are some examples of finding the good in another's writing:

  • "One thing you do really well in this sentence is explain why adaptive capabilities are important for young technology firms."

  • "This paragraph nicely summarizes your argument."

  • "What comes across clearly in this section is why choosing a longitudinal design was appropriate for answering your research questions."

  • "What I like about your abstract is that you scale your findings up with a concise statement of significance: It's clear to me how protist diversity can help create resilient agroecosystems."


4. Find the not-so-good

Next, look for the (sometimes easier-to-find) elements that are not so good. In my experience, the following top five tend to be confusing, missing, or problematic. Check whether the text you're reviewing has problems with any of these.


Terminology

All disciplines have their own terminologies, and your target readers might immediately grasp them. If that’s the case, you (often) don’t need to define them.


If you’re aiming at a broader readership, though, or if you’re introducing a new term, make sure you define. In all cases, be consistent. Don’t use more than one term for the same concept or idea unless you alert readers (and even then, be conservative).


Consistent terminology is incredibly important for your readers because it lets them follow your argument. Don't use more than one term for your key concepts. I often see writers who do this to introduce variety, but it ends up confusing readers, who second guess whether both terms refer to the same thing.


Explicitly stated argument

Arguments are at the heart of academic writing, yet they're often one of the hardest aspects of academic writing to develop. I recommend some helpful books for developing your arguments on my Resources page.


When it comes to feedback and peer review, I frequently see texts in which an argument is never explicitly stated or made clear. I imagine it's because writers don't have an argument (or a fully formed one), or maybe they think they don’t need to state it explicitly (thinking the reader will just “get it”). It may even be a symptom of under-confidence when writing (an identity issue). Unless you state it explicitly, however, readers won’t just get it, so as a reviewer, you need to look for it, and as a writer, you need to state it.


Transitions & connections

The third element of the not-so-good is lack of transitions or clear connections between paragraphs or within sentences. Ideally, these connections should be indicated with direct transition language (however, although, while) or with less explicit but still clearly transitional language (e.g., "These arguments seem less convincing when we consider...").


Logic / cause-effect relationships

Lack of internal logic and unclear cause-effect relationships are two other ways to lose your readers. Most often this happens at the sentence level, but it can also occur within paragraphs. In one text I was editing, the author wrote about the trade-off between stifling innovation and protecting users' rights. To me, the logic seemed flawed: isn't the trade-off usually between encouraging innovation and protecting users' rights?


Coherence

Finally, look for sentences that are unrelated to the surrounding text. I see this a lot in writers’ work: a sentence that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t fit the context. In one client's paragraph, the first sentence was about using the CCO perspective as a basis for a sociomaterial inquiry, and the next sentence jumped to the concept of leadership actors. There was no connection to the CCO perspective. For readers, this can be really confusing.


5. Delivering the message

"I as a reader" responses

The “I as a reader” responses are linked to point two above: stop when you get lost. The "I as a reader" frame has several benefits. First, it focuses on you — as an intelligent reader — and your reaction to the text: You didn’t understand or follow it (even though other people might — i.e., “This is just one person’s opinion”). Compare the effect and impact of feedback framed this way: “It’s not clear” versus “It’s not clear to me.” The “I” focus also moves you away from positioning yourself as the expert or the final arbiter.

Second, the focus on readers reminds writers of why they’re writing in the first place. Writers need readers — as editors, reviewers, and citers of their work — so it’s important to let them know that you are one of those readers and that your opinion is important.


Here are some examples of “I as a reader” responses:

  • "(As a reader) I got lost when I read about commercial shipping because I couldn't see how it related to the main topic of rescue missions..."

  • "It wasn't clear to me what you meant by the term mode because you seem to be using the term logic for the same idea."

  • "I was a little confused by this sentence because above you define common ground as... and here it looks like the definition changes."

  • "I had trouble seeing the connection between these two paragraphs because one is about organizational growth and the other is about the dynamic-states perspective."


Try to use the word "because" in your responses: "It was difficult to understand the main idea in this sentence because you use so much hedging language."

Other readers' responses

You may be reading a text from a field other than your own. If that’s the case, you’re not the target reader. But you can still help the author by shifting the perspective from “I as a reader” responses to “other readers’" responses. Your feedback can highlight issues that target readers might struggle with.


Asking your partner “Will this be clear to readers in your field?” is a way to draw the writer’s attention to something you as an outsider struggled with. An easy “confuser” for readers outside the field is terminology:

  • "Will axotomized be clear to readers?"

  • "How do you think readers in your field will respond to the epigraph from Darwin in a work on organizational strategy?"

  • "Your target readers might be able to easily see the connection between CCO and the Montreal School, but if you think they won't, I would suggest explicitly stating the relationship."


Putting it all together: The aim of feedback

I believe that feedback should be a conversation about your journal article or proposal. It's not simply a matter of language choices or grammar; it's about what you understand a text to be about (and what the author wants it to be about). The conversation takes time, because the process I propose — looking for the intention, finding the good and not-so-good, and noting your reactions to the text — goes beyond saying "It's vague" or "Not clear." To get to a meaningful conversation requires you to dig deeper to uncover where and how the text succeeds or fails at communicating its intended message to you as a reader. Combining these levels provides more complete, more helpful feedback for the person you're giving feedback to.


Delivering the message


In terms of what to say, keep in mind that all writers are more sensitive about their own writing than they’d like to admit. Secretly, we all want a glowing, enthusiastic response from readers. Even the most neutral comments and feedback can sometimes feel like a painful cut.


That’s why delivery is so important. Before I send an editing project back, I (try to) remove all superlatives. During the early rounds of an editing project I often write comments based on my initial reactions, which can sometimes be quite strong. I remove them before I send a project back because most writers receiving feedback are operating with a very heightened sensitivity. Taking away the superlatives delivers the same message, but doesn’t feel like a punch.


Do's and don'ts

So far, I’ve given you advice on what to do when giving feedback. Now I want to give you some advice on what not to do, which is just as important.


You’ll be tempted right away to change and fix an author's text. Resist the temptation. The reason: it skips crucial preliminary steps, such as focusing on how you respond to the text and looking for your partner’s intention. Without doing this work, the fixes you propose might be misguided or even belittling — in effect saying to the author, “I know better than you do” or “I’m the expert here, not you.”


Another thing to avoid is trying to do too much in one round of feedback. You may have flagged grammar or punctuation as problematic because it causes confusion or leads to ambiguity, but save these smaller-scale comments for later and start with fundamental, big-picture comments. Likewise, avoid comments like “repetitive.” Unless you're in the final stages of the writing process, comments like these have limited value; big-picture comments are more valuable.


Finally, you might be tempted to talk about what the writer didn’t do or include, such as referencing certain authors, schools, theories, statistical methods, equations, and so on. Your criticism might be spot on, but the next time you give feedback to an author try responding to what you read on the page, not what you don’t.


No superlatives

  • "entirely"

  • "absolutely"

  • "completely"


Add softening language

  • "a little bit"

  • "somewhat"

  • "it seems like"

 

Understand, don't fix

What not to say

  • "Why don't you just write...?"

  • "Change worn out to broken."

 

Focus on the big picture

What not to say

  • "repetitive"

  • "Change has been to was."

 

Stick with what's on the page

What not to say

  • "Why didn't you cite...?"

  • "You don't discuss...at all."


Hearing the message

As you're receiving feedback,

  • don't interrupt,

  • don't get defensive, and

  • wait for your partner to finish before asking clarifying questions


What not to say

  • "What I meant to write was..."

  • "But don't you see, right here it says..."


What to say

  • "When you say...do you mean you think I should...?"

  • "Just to clarify, what you're suggesting is...?"

  • "So you think if I were to...it would improve the paper?"


Talking it out

The last stage of giving and receiving feedback (well) is to talk it out, keeping in mind all the principles you've learned so far. When receiving feedback on your own text, get into suggestion mode and offer alternatives to see if you can find something that works better. As a writer, one difficulty of receiving feedback is that it can be hard to distance yourself from your own work in such a way that you see it as a product, as a document with a clear objective: to communicate clearly to your readers. Thinking about your text in this way not only helps remind you of why you're writing in the first place, but it also helps you achieve the objectivity you need to handle the rough-and-tumble of peer review.


Listen to the questions and comments you receive — they're valuable because they tell you where your text is not doing its job and where intelligent readers are getting lost or confused.


Use the prompts below to help guide the conversation. Your objective should be to offer alternatives and to find solutions — to develop and write a readable text that communicates what you want it to.


Offering alternatives, finding solutions

  • "Do you think it would help if I...?"

  • "Would a sentence like...bring together the ideas in this paragraph?"

  • "What I was trying to do was...Do you have any ideas for how I could (do it better/ make it clearer)?"



Getting on the same page

It's not easy getting on the same page. Reviewers and editors will continue to push authors to clarify their contribution, will claim that they don't see a clear research question, and will complain that the contribution is not novel enough for publication or funding.


But, by providing valuable feedback to your peers following the principles I've outlined, and by getting this valuable feedback in the form that I've proposed, you have a better shot at reaching that critical audience of editors and peer reviewers. Sharing your work widely, and getting as many eyes on the text as possible, is the best way to gauge how your work will be received by these readers, ensure that your message gets through, and get you and your readers on the same page.


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On the same page - Giving and receiving valuable feedback
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Sources and further reading


I'm grateful to many sources for valuable research and advice on giving feedback to academic writers. In addition to my own experience and reflection on working with academic writers, the most valuable source has been my starting point: Wendy Laura Belcher's Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks (Second Edition).


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