February 26, 2016

How not to drown in red ink: responding effectively to critiques of your writing

Rob Desjardins, graduate writing advisor with the Student Success Centre, shares his insights on criticisms in academic writing and how to turn them into positive tools for revision. 

One day not so many years ago, a lone figure was sitting in a grad student lounge, staring gloomily at a splotchy piece of paper. The student was me; the paper was a draft assignment I had submitted to an academic mentor, and the spots of red ink, which outnumbered the words I had typed, were his comments and suggestions.

So many comments…and so much criticism. As I gazed over the page, I felt mentally paralyzed. Where could I start to address his feedback? Should I even bother? Was my work salvageable, or should I just shuffle back to the drawing board? 

After about 15 minutes, the mentor himself passed by and, seeing me sitting there stunned and immobile, called out cheerfully: “Don’t be daunted by my criticisms!” I tried to smile, but all I could think was: “Easier said than done.”

That, as I said, was some years ago. There have been many mentors, many editors, and many red pens since then; and I have gotten used to seeing my work scribbled over and doodled-up, questioned and interrogated. I find it easier than ever before to accept and respond to editorial criticism — to shake off the sense of disorientation (and even the pangs of defensiveness) it sometimes brings. Doing so, as I tell my students, involves three steps: letting the emotions dissipate, analyzing the criticism dispassionately, and coming up with a plan to address them in consultation with the mentor. Nine times out of ten, these steps trace out a revision process that’s simpler than we might expect.

1. Let your emotions dissipate. How does it feel to read a long series of criticisms related to a wide range of problems heaped together in the margins of a Word document? No surprise there: it’s awful, particularly if the tone of the comments betrays impatience or exasperation. We expect our writing to reflect our scholarly identity, and the combined effect of this feedback can feel like a very personal attack.

But guess what? My cheerful critic was right. It’s best not to be daunted, and to take practical steps to deal with the criticism. In the first place, you need to gain some perspective on it. That means setting the comments aside to let the initial shock and frustration dissipate. Buy yourself an ice cream, go for a long walk in the river valley — do whatever it takes to get rid of the emotional “static” that prevents you from addressing the criticism objectively.

2. Analyze the criticism. Once you’re ready to engage with it, try to tackle your critic’s work in the same way that they tackled yours: analytically. If there are many critical comments, it’s best not to deal with them in the order in which they appear. Instead, organize them into categories: which criticisms are related to the structure and organization of the material? Which are related to the clarity of presentation, the use of headings and transitions? Which are related to syntax and style errors? And which are related to the science underlying the article: things you’ve missed, methods the reader finds objectionable?

Having organized the reader’s feedback in this way, you can move on to ask some higher-level questions about the revision process. What kinds of critical comments will be the most complicated to address (often the answer is those that require new research, changes to your methodology, and revisions to the structure of the paper)? Which does it make sense to deal with first, and why?

3. Make a plan  and share it with your mentor. With these insights in mind, you’re better prepared to involve your academic mentor in the revision process. If they offered many critical comments, it’s usually not a good idea to try to deal with all of them before resubmitting the document (as is necessary, unfortunately, when you’re responding to critiques from non-mentors such as journal editors). That’s a recipe for frustration on your part — and later “waves” of extensive criticism from him or her.

Instead, consider taking steps to address what you regard as the most fundamental and important (and difficult) of the revisions. Then get in touch with the mentor to talk about the revision process. Share:
  • your understanding of the key categories of criticism s/he provided,
  • the steps you have taken so far to address them, and
  • the steps you intend to take to address remaining concerns. You might also share a very short excerpt (a page or two) illustrating the changes you’ve made thus far and asking whether you’re on the right track.
However stung you may feel by your mentor’s criticism, it’s often unwise to shy away from further conversation about the project, trying to “fix” the piece entirely on your own.  Academics, after all, are paid to help others improve their work by criticizing it. That’s the good place where most criticism comes from, and that same willingness to help often manifests itself in support for students who are taking practical steps to improve their work. That’s why they call them “mentors.” You don’t need to travel this road alone.

Still have questions about effectively using critiques in your writing? Make an appointment to get one-on-one professional support at the Student Success Centre and read more about effectively communicating with your professor or mentor to work through critiques.