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  • Marc Abernathy

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

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

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 the