Using feedback

How do I respond to feedback?

“Setting out on this journey, when you’re young and relatively inexperienced, trying to make your way in this particular world, the feedback you get feels much more personal because you feel, rightly or wrongly, that you have more to lose, that it’s all going to be pulled away from you in some way or another, that you’re not going to make it, than is likely when you’re more established and it’s then ‘actually it’s just feedback on an article’. That doesn’t mean you don’t have battles sometimes.”

“Even after getting feedback on academic writing for over ten years now, I can still feel defensive when I first read it. It is often tempting to say, ‘”Well, they didn’t read this carefully enough’ or ‘but they’ve missed the point completely’”. Then I quickly realise that if I had made the point more clearly the feedback would probably not have been given. But it helps to have several commentators, so that you are not at the mercy of a potentially idiosyncratic reader. I ask only those people who appreciate the need for constructive feedback and will give it in the spirit in which it is invited. Some people will always try to score points when giving feedback and they are best avoided (even if they are your friends or family).”

“We have a long discussion. They get termly written reports as a matter of course, and that crystalises main issues and where we are going with it. I tend to meet students for a long time, but not probably as frequently as other people would. It’s not unusual for me to have two or three hours with a PhD student on a piece of their work, and it’s a very thorough going over and we are both exhausted at the end of it but it’s been worthwhile. They get re-energised and redirected from that. They don’t usually tape that conversation but they do take notes, and as we get to the end of it we say, ‘”Okay, what’ve we done, what’s been decided, what’s going to be done next?’”. Then we schedule the next meeting and what is to be done for that, with an open invitation to get in touch by phone if something comes up (practical or intellectual). Some people, maybe in the sciences, are okay with half an hour or quarter of an hour a week, just touching base, but I find that it has to be sustained.”

“What I find myself doing as the person providing the feedback is often writing in great detail on drafts, sometimes in red pen, or using track changes on Word, which again is a very effective way of helping to correct text and making suggestions about how to do some of these things in ways in which people may or may not pick up on. I suppose, in my own work, the simple thing I’ve found, apart from the fact that my writing has improved through experience, is that my writing is always improved when it is read by someone who knows what they’re doing. They will always have things to say that will make sentences simpler, bring the ideas to the fore. I have one or two people I work with who I think write well and who provide very helpful feedback, and I try to do the same with the people I work with. With students, at the beginning of the process of thesis writing, we say, “‘Don’t worry about the style, give me a body of text and I will write all over it but don’t worry about that, it’s just our way of working with your text and your writing style; you can take it on board or ignore it, but at least you’ve got a sense of what my reaction to it is and how I think you might say some things you want to say, and with luck it will help in the process of finding your voice and your own style”.’”

“There’s certainly been experiences when I’ve been receiving feedback, and for others more recently when I’ve been giving feedback, where it’s obviously been very hurtful, and one of the problems is that it’s a terribly personal thing. It sounds a bit pretentious but there is that kind of giving of yourself. People feel very vulnerable when they hand over a piece of writing. It says something about them. Then to have the feedback, particularly if it’s quite critical, even if well meant and hopefully constructive, it can be very painful to take. As a postgraduate I was on the receiving end of what felt to me very hurtful criticism, but actually I think the professor was absolutely right. But it was very biting stuff and a difficult lesson to learn. I think there were times when the extent of my comments and criticisms of other people’s texts has been taken in a way I didn’t mean but I can understand that it wasn’t easy to deal with. So it’s a difficult thing to handle and much of this thing comes back to the quality of the relationship between the student and the supervisor. I think a lot of effort goes into feedback about the substance. I’m not sure nearly as much effort goes into feedback on the vehicle and the way in which you convey these ideas.”

“Very badly sometimes to perceived criticism, whereas some of the experiences I’ve had with (not always but more often) the most senior, sometimes exceedingly well-known authors who receive similarly biting criticism who respond particularly well. They say, “‘Yes, that was very valuable”,’ sometimes, I suspect, because they don’t get it very often.”

“The best type of feedback is that which enthuses you to return immediately to your desk and get on with the next stage of writing.”