by Cally Guerin
As we approach the festive season, some of us are encouraged to believe that the giving of gifts is more rewarding than receiving gifts. When it comes to critiquing writing and providing feedback, I think it is certainly true that giving is at least as valuable as receiving feedback. Caffarella and Barnett (2000) have made a strong case for this. Their insights are particularly useful for doctoral writing, where providing critique on other authors’ work in progress can be a powerful way for PhD students to learn about their own writing.
I’ve explored the idea of feedback in doctoral writing groups as gift exchange (Mauss 1950/1969) in a forthcoming chapter (reference below), where I found this metaphor a useful tool for understanding the social dynamics of writing groups. Here, however, I want to consider the act of giving on an individual level, rather than in the context of a group.
The value of giving critique was brought home to me recently at a great workshop on peer reviewing run by Rosemary Deem at the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) for early career researchers. During the session, our conversations about how to provide useful and effective peer review returned again and again to reflections on the participants’ own writing. The distinction between reviewing and learning about writing was constantly blurred. It seems that everything we want to advise others to do will also inform how we go about doing our own writing. A virtuous cycle is thus set up between giving and receiving—we give good advice that we can then take on board ourselves.
There is no doubt that everyone learns something about writing from receiving feedback (even if it is to provoke us to defend our choices rather than to change anything in our writing). Many of us have also learnt a great deal about writing from marking essays and being put in the position of having to explain just why that paper should get a B grading instead of an A. Through articulating precisely why one word choice or argument structure is better than another we start to understand what makes writing effective. On the other hand, it can—very importantly—reveal whether that advice is based on what is ‘correct’ or simply our own personal preferences. ‘I just think it sounds better this way’ isn’t a reasoned critique!
Reading and critiquing someone else’s writing is a time-consuming job, however. There may well be occasions when what is learnt is fairly minimal in that it simply serves to remind us of what seems blindingly obvious. In those situations, perhaps the most useful lesson is to confirm that we are on the right path with our own writing efforts.
Nevertheless, the benefits of giving feedback provide a strong enough reason for us to encourage emerging researchers to donate their time to reviewing conference abstracts and journal articles as an important pedagogy in doctoral education (see Michelle Maher on this in a DoctoralWriting blog on 13 September 2013). It’s also yet another very good reason for encouraging doctoral students to join a writing group in which participants give and receive feedback (then again, it’s hard to think of a reason NOT to join a writing group!).
Have you found yourself changing your own writing, or becoming aware of how you might improve your own work, through the process of giving someone else feedback? Has it been a useful exercise for you? What did you learn?
Caffarella, R.S., and B.G. Barnett. (2000). Teaching doctoral students to become scholarly writers: The importance of giving and receiving critiques. Studies in Higher Education 25(1): 39-52.
Guerin, C. (forthcoming 2014). The gift of writing groups: Critique, community and confidence. In C. Aitchison & C. Guerin (eds), Writing Groups for Doctoral Education and Beyond: Innovations in Practice and Theory, Abingdon: Routledge.
Mauss, M. (1950/1969). The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. I. Cunningham, Cohen & West: London.