Advice I’ve Gleaned From a Year With a PhD Writing Feedback Group.

For the last year, I have been participating in a group of 6 or 7 people (three postdocs, my supervisor, and a fellow Ph.D. student) reading and giving feedback on each other’s papers. We typically read book chapters prior to submission to publication, and journal articles prior to submission to publishers. From time to time a professor at another institution will send along a chapter for feedback and we all get in on it. This experience has brought a range of lessons and emotions.  Surprise, surprise, much of what I take myself to have learned is fairly traditional sounding advice for writing, but here are some suggestions on (a) the helpful kinds of feedback I see being given and (b) not helpful things people do in feedback groups.

  1. Helpful Types of Feedback I Have Observed.

As I observe the postdocs and others giving feedback, here are the comments and questions that I find are the most helpful. Perhaps someone else will be able to make use of these.

  • Framing. “Framing” is a great word I was introduced to. This has to do with how you “set up” your paper for the reader. Sure there is your core argument such as “Penal Substitution is the theory that Christians should take as the foundation of their understanding of the atonement” (or pick your own title) … but you can frame that conclusion (and its supporting arguments) in various ways. I have seen writers suggest that a paper can be “saved” by reframing it so that even though the paper is largely written, its  thesis and argument can be framed differently in a way that makes the argument/thesis jump out as contributing legitimately to a certain conversation, whereas before that might not have been clear. Here are some example framing comments :
    • My paper is directly responding to person X’s view.
    • My paper is adding to this conversation of writers from event X.
    • My paper is meant to introduce problems with other views that I don’t think others are giving enough attention to.
  • Scope. Are you doing too much in this paper. One way I hear this asked indirectly is by the suggestion that, “Perhaps you have two papers here!”   Perhaps the writer could spin a second paper off of the first, and at the same time reduce the first paper to something more focused, more effective in its argument and more appealing to read.
  • Focus. What are you arguing? Is your thesis clear?  When I started writing philosophy papers I was taught to minimize the introduction and get right to the thesis. I have to admit that in a recent paper I wrote, I completely forgot that piece of advice! Becuase one of the readers was less familiar with the theologian I was writing about, the lack of a clear thesis made the paper pretty unpleasant for him to read. It was embarrassing. Some writers need to go back and re-write their introduction at the end of the paper to make sure that what they’ve written matches what the first paragraph (and thesis statement) states they are doing.
  • Unanswered objections. When you have a room full of philosophers, sometimes the objections just start coming as a part of the conversation. Nevertheless, there is a role to be played by readers pointing out objections you’ve failed to address. If one is submitting a paper for publication it the more objections one can help relieve the reader of, the better.  Sometimes a writer will attempt to evade the objection by changing the core of their paper. That takes hard work. Sometimes they can just tighten up the wording here or there. Sometimes they may add a comment that adjusts their framing/focus in a way that makes the objection no longer relevant. Sometimes they soften their claims from something like, “This is the best way to deal with this issue” to “this is one reasonable way deal with this issue that brings many merits with it.”  Sometimes writers bite the bullet and say, “See Xs work on this objection. I am willing to take their position on this issue, I’m not dealing with that in my paper.” As noted below, very often writers have already done much of their writing and may not have time or energy to make substantial changes to a work, so they have to find less dramatic solutions to the above problems.
  • Arguments that could be added or tightened. Like the above, there are comments that help the writer tighten their argument or suggest that they add to the paper in order to strengthen it.
  • Organization. At times readers are distracted by where a section of the paper is sitting relative to the rest of the paper. Often comments will be overhead suggesting that the author move “this section” to the beginning or further back. Perhaps a paragraph should be relegated to a footnote because the reader gets lost and it disrupts throughflow.
  • Title suggestions. This is more for fun – but comments get made here. I think I’ve heard one or two people joke about click-bate, by referring to a title that was so catchy it just makes people want to read the article. There is more to a good title than you might think. I certainly haven’t made a good habit out of trying to draw my readers in through my titles. Dr. John Thompson (not a member of our reading group) advocated using a two part title because this was your momentary chance to grab the readers attention as they scan journal article titles to decide what to read.
  • Minor grammatical points. In our reading groups, we don’t spend time talking about grammar unless it deals with clarity. Grammatic errors, citation changes are made in a document and emailed or handed to the author at the end of the reading session.
  • Suggesting other resources and references for the author to cite, add, review before publishing. I wrote a paper on Calvin and had a question from another professor about Calvin’s role in the Geneva consistory. As an expression of his desire to help my paper, my supervisor pulled a book off his shelf and suggested I look at a particular chapter to see if there was any guidance on the particular question.
  • Suggesting what journal a person might try submitting an article to. This can be such a big help for those who are still new to the submission and publishing process. However, ignorance on the part of the writer may signal a need to spend more time becoming familiar with the journals in their field.

2. Treating others as you’d want to be treated. Or.. unhelpful things to avoid in a feedback session.

It was only through experiencing my own feelings during feedback that I began to queue into thoughts about how I approached others papers. Having someone fire questions at you is a part of the academic process, but it can be uncomfortable. There are two sides to this issue. Some say that is part of life in the guild (they are certainly right) but I personally think there is a practical duty you owe others if you are participating in a feedback group; a duty to not assume anything that comes out of your mouth is useful; a duty to carefully pick comments that are constructive.   In a feedback group, participants are there for input, advice, and help before they send their writing out into the wild.  This should provide boundaries that guide the questions we ask the writer. Here are a few things that I notice occurring (rarely but they seem easy enough to spot when they do occur) that I appreciate less during a paper feedback sessions.

  • Don’t make them defend something they aren’t trying to defend. If a person has written a paper about topic A, but not about topic B (even though B is related in some way), it does not help the writer for you to unload all your passionate arguments about B. If for example, someone is writing a paper on Barth’s methodology and she introduces his doctrine of election as an example of his methodology, it does the author little good  for you to press her for a defense of Barth’s doctrine of election as if this was the point of her paper. If her paper had been on “Why Barth’s Doctrine of Election is Surely Right” then that would be a perfect question, but it wasn’t her thesis, so what are you trying to accomplish? If you want to talk about B, at least preface it with the comment, “This doesn’t seem to be exactly on your topic so perhaps we can talk about it later, but I was curious to get your thoughts on topic B (e.g. Barth’s doctrine of election)…”
  • A feedback session is not your chance to make sure you unload every question and objection you can think of. Before I say this I can already imagine the response – that – outsiders will not be merciful to our writing, so it is better that we suffer at the hands of friends. That is probaby true. Perhaps I should delete this point. Still, I think there is a practicality line that we cross where some criticisms seem genuinely constructive and others just eat up conversation time because it is unclear exactly how important that question is. What do you think? Is it better to just point out what you took to be obviously good and not-good or is it better to look hard to find something wrong with a paper.
  • It certainly is not a time to humiliate and tear down that person in an effort to make oneself feel intellectually superior. This is something I’m sure goes on in other groups but fortunately not ours  – I hope. As a follower of Jesus, I don’t have any qualms about stating that feedback should be done as an expression of service to others and not of service to one’s own emotional needs to feel intellectually superior. Please don’t reach for the sophomoric response and claim that by tearing someone down we are loving them. A question, that seems useful to me is “How can I treat this person like I would want to be treated and help them improve their paper?”
  • Does it really help the author to talk about the paper they should have written? It depends here on how you say this. On one hand, this is a piece of advice that is hard for the author to make use of at the moment. They spent all their time writing this paper. They need help on this paper. Ideally, we can help them with their current project. On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt to  suggest, “Here is an idea for a future paper.”
  • Being overly harsh on a paper because you don’t prefer the content. Liberation theology is not my area of focus, but that is a completely separate discussion from whether Jones has written a quality paper on Liberation theology. State the fact of the matter, “Look, I’m not a big fan of X, but from my limited perspective this seems good here, and that seems unclear there… etc..”
  • Failing to point out the positives strikes me as inaccurate feedback unless there are no positives anywhere.  I think we can give positive feedback without suggesting a work is publication ready. The act of seeking feedback also involves seeking outsider input on what one has done well. I don’t see the harm in being realistically positive, especially if one is going to follow with some criticism. If a writer has done something well, then tell them – “I really like this section”, “That comment seems spot on”, “nice choice of words.”  Etc.. Saying nothing positive and listing out 4 complaints can paint an inaccurate picture and thus constitute inaccurate feedback (unless there are in fact no positives)   Again the goal isn’t to create a soft unrealistic experience for poor writers, but positive feedback is an essential part of life, growth, performance improvement, etc.. If a writer has done a good job and you only have two minor points, say that, “I think this is a great paper and I only have two points.” If you are nervous about premature accolades then say that, “I am hesitant to compliment the paper too quickly…  It seems to me that it is good except for two issues, but perhaps others in our group are more equipped to make an overall evaluation. “

Conclusion

I suspect that I have learned more than I at first thought, merely by participating in my first year with this feedback group. If only my writing would automatically rise to the quality of feedback I’ve overhead! Personally, I hope to take peoples work, emotion, and goals into consideration without doing them the disservice soft-pedaling my advice (not that I’m the place to give much advice yet to PhD’s well beyond my current level of education!

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