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By Claire Aitchison

As I go to post this blog, I realise it’s Valentine’s Day – perhaps in this blog you’ll pick up some hints for improving your relationship with those who read your writing…

Most writers acknowledge the benefits of having a reading audience of one kind or another. Certainly those who see academic writing as social practice are acutely aware of the importance of readers for the doing of writing – and for its reception.

But not all readers are equal, nor is all feedback. Consider for a minute the difference between the kind of response you would expect from these different readers: a friendly academic colleague, a research supervisor/adviser, an examiner, a writing buddy or writing group peer, an anonymous scholarly reviewer, a spouse.  Each of these comprises different power relations, whereby roles, identities and expectations are modified according to relationships and socially mediated practices associated with not only the written text, but also the context in which the reading takes place.

Sometimes feedback practices, roles and procedures are explicit, perhaps even regulated. For example, the work of a PhD examiner occurs within a framework whereby the reader is instructed to make particular judgements (typically about the contribution to knowledge, knowledge of the field, research expertise and so on). Their interaction with the text has a pre-determined purpose that is independent of both the writer and the reader.  Similarly, on submitting a manuscript to a journal or a grant application to a funding body, the writer submits themselves and their writing to a feedback process defined by pre-existing ‘rules’ over which they have very little control.  In both these instances, presumably, the writer sends well-prepared, mature work for feedback.  Feedback is more summative (ie at the completion of the task) than formative (during the development of the text).  The reader’s role is mostly gatekeeper, examiner; rarely helper, teacher, mentor.  (Of course in practice, it isn’t necessarily so clear-cut).

By contrast, when we receive feedback from people known to us, we’re perhaps able to have some influence on the process, the ‘rules’ are likely to be more flexible and the intention is developmental rather than summative. (Although perhaps not – I have heard doctoral students say their harshest critic is their spouse, parent or child!) In such relatively informal situations, a common understanding of the purposes or practices of feedback can’t be assumed.

Feedback will differ not only according to the context, but also according to the skills and knowledge of the reader themselves; comments from one’s neighbour are likely to be quite different from those of a disciplinary colleague. In doctoral study, supervisors are generally designated feedback-givers but that doesn’t preclude students seeking other, additional reviewers of their writing. Sometimes we are lucky enough to have one reader who is sufficiently skilled to meet all our needs – someone who can give feedback on the big stuff (the quality of the ideas, the argument, knowledge of the field and so on), as well as critique sentence level issues.

You (mostly) get what you ask for. Hardly a revelation; and yet I am often surprised by how passive some writers are about the whole feedback cycle. The response you can expect from soliciting open, undirected feedback (eg What you think of this?) is anyone’s guess.  There are times when this kind of impressionistic feedback is just what we want, but undirected requests, especially in combination with limited information about the manuscript, can be unhelpful for the author and frustrating for the reviewer.

There is much to be gained from directing feedback, especially at particular points in the process of constructing a manuscript, and especially for novice writers. Being an active feedback seeker means coming to know our own writerly habits, strengths and needs – and learning how these change over time. Being a pro-active feedback seeker sharpens our awareness of audience because it makes us write for, and seek a response from, a particular person.

Feedback will also vary according to the writing submitted. Often a first draft has unclear ideas and imperfect grammar and punctuation. Typically such early writing benefits most from feedback on the evolving ideas. In the absence of specific guidance, however, the reader may focus on sentence level matters, again causing frustration for both parties.

In writing groups we’ve established a practice whereby authors are expected to provide three pieces of information to guide their reviewers: 1. an indication of the maturity of the writing (eg first, middle or final draft); 2. the nature of the text (eg part of a chapter, introduction to a journal article etc); 3. the kind of feedback being sought (eg flow, argument, use of evidence, etc).

It’s not always easy or possible, but some students have reported benefitting from incorporating these kinds of informational and agentic strategies for directing feedback when working with their supervisors.

You may also enjoy this blog by Cassily Charles on the Thesis Whisperer about the student-supervisor feedback cycle. Or you may be able to recommend other blogs or personal practices you have found improve the chances of getting useful feedback.