By Claire Aitchison
Writing a thesis is only one of numerous writing tasks in doctoral candidature. Writing for a reading audience across multiple forms (journal articles, social media, grant applications and so on) is increasingly expected of doctoral scholarship – and this also means learning how to respond to feedback and critique.
This post for supervisors and candidates focuses on the often-occluded practices of writing rejoinders for grant applications, scholarly journal reviews and PhD examiner reports. I acknowledge what we’d like to say – and what we should!
The first thing to recognise is that writing back to a reviewer/assessor/examiner is not a benign writing task. More often than not, as authors, we have visceral emotional responses to commentary by others on our work. I offer these mantras – they articulate the unspoken, inner voice that can guide us from emotional reaction to a considered communicative act.
Step 1 A mantra for self, for letting off steam
I am gobsmacked, frustrated and outraged by your review! Clearly you didn’t read my work carefully, or perhaps you were biased from the outset – otherwise you would have noticed what you criticise is there on pages 1,3,7,10-15! Yes, I did read that text even if I don’t refer to it; yes, of course I do know that literature! It’s not my problem if you don’t understand my research approach – perhaps you’ve never heard of this technique before? In fact, it’s clear you are extraordinarily ill-qualified to review my submission.
Step 2 A guiding mantra for developing the response
I will be respectful. I will not show my irritation. I will not insert snide remarks. I will not pretend to address the feedback by a) simply ignoring what I don’t like in the hope you won’t notice, b) saying I have made changes where I haven’t, c) saying I have made changes but fail to indicate where the changes are in the revised manuscript, d) coming up with a whole new idea/approach not related to any of the reviewer comments.
Step 3 A sober, objective mantra for responding to reviewers
Thank you for your time and expertise – you’ve given me insight into what might be troublesome for readers. Addressing your comments has helped me to improve this article/thesis/application considerably. Here I explain where, and how I have responded to your feedback, and, where I don’t take up your suggestions, I explain why not.
In some circumstances, the biggest benefit might arise when the supervisor and candidate discuss the reviews together and perhaps not even respond formally, instead using the commentary to sharpen ideas and develop an improved version to submit elsewhere. However, when the stakes are high, such as for a PhD or grant, it’s worth taking some time to support doctoral candidates get the response just right.
Whether good or bad, warranted or not, receiving feedback can stir strong emotions – from, joy and delight to shock, anger, embarrassment, and disappointment. A disappointing review may reignite the lurking feelings of imposter syndrome. It’s entirely fine to feel these emotions – they can even be energising! Stamp your feet and scream, vent and release – but make sure the final written response is unemotional, clear and considered. Don’t rush to send off your response. Take as much time as possible to hone your message. That’s where it is essential to get other readers in. Supervisors and/or more senior and trusted colleagues can be invaluable critical friends to help candidates move from an initial emotion-infused reaction to a genuinely improved outcome: a better manuscript and appropriate gratitude to those who helped that happen.
Who are you writing to?
This is part of the challenge – depending on the genre and circumstances, chances are, the reviewer whose comments you need to address may not be the reader of your response. In some instances, the journal editor will read your response and determine the next steps; sometimes your response and revised submission will be sent to a different reviewer; sometimes a committee will read and assess your rejoinder; and sometimes an examiner will want to see your responses before approving the thesis. It is helpful to remember your purpose is to address the reviewer comments, so presume that critic will be the reader of your responses. In most cases, you can be assured the reviewer’s work is voluntary, or poorly paid, so remaining civil is the least you owe them.
What you say, and how
In essence, in my view, speaking back to a reviewer involves articulating 3 things:
1) clarification of what they are asking of you;
2) your response to this (including your rationale for making the changes suggested or not taking up the criticism); and
3) the resultant actions you take (including what and where).
Be clear, precise and detailed. Tables help you establish facts (initially for yourself, but ultimately, importantly for the reviewer/examiner/assessor). Use a table to systematically record the reviewers’ feedback and your response to it including your rationale for what you choose to do or otherwise. Tell them or show them where the changes are.
It is important to provide an introductory narrative about key strengths and areas of concern and your responses. This text should thank the reviewers/assessors/examiners and indicate what benefits/outcomes have arisen from taking up the suggestions given. Where there are a lot of less important comments/observations (e.g., punctuation errors), you don’t have to respond to every single one. However, make sure you carefully think through criticisms about bigger issues such as methodology, interpretation of the data, contribution, argument and so on. A table will help you see patterns so you can group and summarise the areas of concern but be specific in documenting your actions – give page numbers, reproduce reworked arguments, clarification of the research design and so on.
When you are responding to two or more reviewer/assessor/examiner comments be very careful to balance the positive and negative – while it is likely the negative comments are the sticking points that do need to be addressed, never lose sight of those other comments that laud the positives. Emphasise what is strong about your work by responding to positive feedback by including statements such as ‘I am grateful that you identified [xxx] and its benefit to the project’. It’s not easy to do, but your job is to arrive at a balanced judgement of what needs addressing and how. You don’t want to unpick the integrity of your manuscript by altering aspects that only one person sees difficulties with.
The content of your response needs to be respectful, accurate and informative as it addresses the concerns raised – and it also needs to be delivered in the right tone or voice.
Whether you like what the reviewer has said or not, you have to demonstrate that you have taken the person and the process seriously; they have the power, and you need to win this battle! Act like a scholar – there’s no place for sarcasm, snippiness or superiority. Don’t lecture the reviewer. Put all of that in your enraged raving to trusted peers, or your personal grief rant in some safe space. Remember, you don’t have to do everything asked of you, but you do have to show a genuine preparedness to engage in the reviewer comments.
Besides the content of the response, one of the hardest things to nail is the correct voice for speaking back to reviewers. Yes, the response needs to be authorial – but learning to write with both confidence and humility, to avoid lecturing or being defensive or aggressive, is advice easier to give than to carry out. Doctoral candidates who write for publication and thus participate in the review process are better prepared than many when it comes to responding to examiners’ reports.
Even though there is growing support for doctoral scholars and early career researchers to publish, and thus navigate the review process, we think that many supervisors still struggle to help their candidates with this difficult form of writing. If you have any resources/advice you’ve found useful we’d love to hear from you.