How Do You Get Feedback On Your Writing (During A PhD / In Grad School)?

  When I was driving home from Orlando with my kids a few years ago, I wondered “How do I get feedback on my journal articles before I submit them to academic journals?” Then, I thought that getting feedback on your writing is a much broader problem to tackle. This was the beginning of my r3ciprocity project, where I am trying to create a system to allow people to get feedback on their writing (it’s mostly geared to academics at this moment to focus my efforts, but all writers and editors are welcome!). This article details how you can get feedback on your writing during your PhD. The article details:
  1. Some sources of writing feedback.
  2. Strengths and weaknesses of writing feedback / critiques. 
  3. Provides information on how to provide good feedback.
  4. Gives examples of good and bad peer reviews.
  5. And, provides a simple checklist for peer reviewing of articles. 

Sources Of Writing Feedback.

For professors (it is going to be similar for writers), there are three sources of feedback on writing:  
  1. Friendly peer review. Friendly peer-review occurs when your friends and acquaintances give you feedback on your writing. I think in the writing industry, these friendly reviews are called ‘beta-readers.’ The fundamental problem with friendly peer review is that you quickly run out of friends to ask. Also, friends are not going to provide the same honest feedback as blinded reviewers on a manuscript.
  2. Feedback From Conferences. You can also get feedback on your writing from attending academic conferences.  Some academic conferences, like the Academy of Management, have you submit a manuscript and the manuscript is peer-reviewed by volunteers. Sometimes they provide good feedback and sometimes they don’t provide good feedback on your writing. The issue with the feedback is often bad reviewers identify your problems, but don’t help you with solutions to your writing.
  3. Feedback From Journal Article Submissions. You also get feedback from journal article submissions through the peer-review process. Generally, peer review is blinded and you don’t know who your reviewers are. This process is very good and generally at a top-tier journal. You will get good reviewers that both can identify your weaknesses and help you provide solutions.  However, the process tends to be slow and you don’t want to submit too many weak articles to journals because this reduces your credibility with editors in the future. The academic journal system is largely volunteer, and it works on reputation. Further, the solutions tend to be rather technical, rather than constructive feedback on writing.
  I wanted the r3ciprocity platform to provide a middle ground by creating a system that focuses on helping people improve their writing by getting feedback from others (Here is a post that details some of the journey of creating the system). Moreover, many of the above solutions are focused on aiding professors, principal investigators, and not at helping out PhD students or other graduate students. This is a group of people that are learning the skills to become academics, but they don’t have the resources to pay for writing classes or expensive editorial help on their writing. I have been there.   Thus, I wanted to create a system that had a ‘freemium’ model in which you can get feedback on your writing for free as long as you helped out others yourself or for payment. This has dual goals of helping out as many people as possible and to make the system sustainable by having payment.  

What Are The Strengths And Weaknesses Of Writing Critiques / Feedback? 

  You might be asking why does feedback on your writing matter? When I get my writing critiqued from others, I usually find that there are strengths and weaknesses to these writing critiques.  

Strengths of Writing Critiques

  1. You can identify if your main points are resonating. If you come back with a lackluster reviewer, it likely means that the reviewer didn’t understand what you’re talking about. you need to go back and make it resonate more by illustrating why your points are important.
  2. You can identify weak spots in your writing. When I am thinking about the writing critique, I’m thinking about both what the reviewer has written and also where they got lost with my points.This is looking ‘through’ the feedback. 
  3. You get new ideas. Whenever I get feedback from other people, I usually get two kinds of information. Some of the information is redundant, but some of the information is new can give me insight on the thing that I am researching. These new ideas are perhaps the most important reason why you want to get feedback from other people.
 

Weaknesses of Writing Critiques

 
  1. Getting feedback on your writing almost always hurts. I do not know of a time in which I did not want to give up on a project when I got feedback on the project I was working on. Know that it is just one person’s opinion, and can choose to ignore and push through.
  2. Writing critiques do not account for diverse opinions. There is this thing in statistics that is called the central limit theorem, and basically applying it to writing feedback, it means that one person’s opinion is just their opinion, and you need to account for many people’s thoughts to have a true understanding of what people think about your writing. The problem with feedback from one person is that we currently don’t have a mechanism to aggregate feedback from multiple sources / people. In other words, feedback is far more subjective than I would like. You have to learn what is good feedback and what is feedback that needs to be discarded. 
  3. Writing critiques are not weighted by their value. Because feedback is often free (not accounting for a person’s time) and we don’t compensate feedback, there is often considerable variability in the feedback that you receive. For example, it’s own thing getting anonymous feedback from someone on Twitter versus getting feedback from someone you respect and admire. If you can place value on certain types of feedback or from certain people, I think we will have much better feedback mechanism, and you will be better able to make a decision on your work. 
 

How Do You Provide Good Feedback On An Article?

  The goal with feedback on research articles is not only to improve the validity of the research article, but to also make it easier to read so others will read it in the future. Ultimately, what you should be aiming for is pointing out the problem in the paper, but also providing solutions to the problem. There is nothing more frustrating then getting feedback that provides little direction and how to solve the problems that the reviewer sees. Your goal should be to provide both problems and solutions to these problems.   In terms of what feedback you should provide, I think good feedback occurs when somebody can see the bigger picture of what you are trying to do and can steer you towards that bigger picture so you can have a larger impact with your article. The goal is not to get stuck in the details of the paper, but to give feedback that allows the author to see whether he/she can take the idea next.  

What Are Some Examples of Good And Bad Peer Reviews?

  These are hypothetical statements from good and bad reviews. I also provide some information about why these are good or bad reviews.  

Statements From A Good Review:

  1. “I like where you taking this idea, but I really think you should try to incorporate ideas about XXX as well.”
    1. Here, the reviewer is helping the author by suggesting that their idea is not broad enough. As the author, you should read up on what the reviewer is asking you to look at. Perhaps, you can incorporate some new ideas into your work. 
  2. “Your introduction is unfocused, and you need to reduce the number of pages dedicated to your introduction to 2 pages. Remember to also include your research gap and research question.”
    1. The reviewer is helping you by making your work more focused. Sometimes introductions just go way too long, and its an easy mistake to fix.
  3. “Your analysis is missing XXX, and you should try to include XXX into your paper.”
    1. These are the most straight-forward comments to address. It is an example of someone doing a good review because the author can directly address the problem. The more specific and detailed the comment is, the easier it is to fix and answer. Try to be specific as possible.
  4. “You need to clearly define your constructs on page 1.”
    1. This is a common critique, and it is a simple fix. You simply just have to define the constructs early and put the statement “We define XXX as…” The more precise and focused the review, the easy it is to fix.
 

Statements From A Bad Review:

 
  1. “This paper is good.”
    1. Blanket value statements give you absolutely no feedback. There is nothing you can do with this information.
  2. “This paper has fatal flaws and never should be published.”
    1. This kind of feedback will destroy the paper, and the basic ideas behind the paper. While the idea may not be good, you should focus on being developmental and think about the feelings of the author. The author(s) will likely never pick up the paper again after they get this reviews.
  3. “You are the worst writer I have seen.”
    1. This kind of feedback targets the individual author, and should be avoided. When given constructive feedback, you should focus on the task or the document, rather than the individual. A better statement might be “The paper could use more development.” Moreover, as a reviewer, you should have a learning mindset that the paper is not complete, but is in a constant state of development. Sometimes, authors might submit an article that is too ‘green’ to simply get some early feedback on their writing.
  4. “I like the basic idea, but I just feel that core idea lack face validity.”
    1. While this statement is common, it does not give the author much to work with. It does not provide rationale about why, where, or how the idea lacks face validity. It does not give the author any possible ‘out’ to respond to the comment because the idea will always lack face validity in the reviewers eyes. Rather, the reviewer should suggest to the author to go out and collect additional qualitative evidence or interview evidence to back up their claims.
 

Article Peer Review Checklist

  Here is a simple checklist for peer review of your articles. Its not complete, and I might add to the list over the next few years. Here are some basics:  
  1. Does the article cover all of the basic sections:
    1. Introduction.
    2. Theory development.
    3. Hypotheses development.
    4. Research Setting/Methods.
    5. Results.
    6. Implications / Discussion.
    7. Conclusion (Optional).
  2. Does the article have a clearly identified research gap?
  3. Does the research article have a research question?
  4. Are the constructs defined in the article?
  5. Are the hypotheses simple and easy to understand?
    1. Are there rationale for each hypothesis?
  6. Is the research setting clearly articulated?
  7. How was the sample collected? Is the sample representative of the population?
  8. Are the empirical metrics clearly laid out? Do the empirical metrics match the constructs in the paper?
  9. Is the analytical technique discussed in the paper?
    1. Can you follow the analytical technique? Why / Why not?
  10. Do the results discuss if the hypotheses are supported? If not, are the results interesting and counter-intuitive?
  11. Are there theoretical implications? If this is a practitioner journal, are there practical implications?
    1. Do the implications make sense?
    2. Do they match the theory?
  12. Does the author discuss limitations? If not, why are there no limitations in the article?
  13. Is the conclusion too broad or narrow?
  14. Grammar / Spelling / Syntax.
    1. Are there too many small grammar issues? Can you provide examples?
    2. Are the figures / pages / tables number correctly?
    3. What does the reference list look like? Are there errors in the references?
  15. Quality of overall idea:
    1. Can you take a step back from the paper and identify it was interesting and counter intuitive? 
    2. Are you going to tell other people about the idea?
    3. Did the paper change your mind about something?
  In summary, I wanted to help you get feedback on your writing. I wanted to give you as much detail as possible on why writing feedback is important, and how you can improve your writing during your PhD in the future using feedback. This article also details what I am trying to do with the r3ciprocity project, and why I think the r3ciprocity project is important. If you want to learn more about what it is like to get your PhD, and how you can become a better academic, you can look at these older posts that I wrote:
  1. Steps to improve your writing as an academic. 
  2. How to write a research article.
  3. Advantages and disadvantages of a PhD.
  4. How long is a PhD?
  5. Frustrating PhD questions to never ask someone. 

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David Maslach

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