book writing – an occasional post

I’m up against what is now a very tight deadline. It would have been OK if I hadn’t been away from broadband for all of January when I was at home in Australia.

No wifi was an unforeseen glitch. It was largely down to the sheer inefficiency of the Australian telecommunications self-styled IT giant. Getting online involved numerous phone calls to the offshore call centre and a great deal of irritation. Even the view from my balcony (above) couldn’t get me past my crabbiness about being offline – I just couldn’t access my files. All efficiently stored on cloud before I left home in England.

And then the glorious day when I finally had access.  I decided, very unwisely as it turned out, to celebrate by updating my bibliographic software. Despite all of the information about compatibility this new version wasn’t immediately in sync with my word processing software. More delay.  More emails and phone calls to the helpline which did indeed sort out the problem but – Merde!! Double Merde!!!!! More time lost from writing.

So I did what I could, which ended up being one measly chapter, not the four I had planned.

And a structural reorganisation. I often find that my initial ideas about book structures end up not being workable. They seem all OK when I send them off to the publisher. Then I get stuck into writing and that lovely plan just doesn’t seem right. On this January occasion, I had a few goes at a new structure and ended up writing the new first chapter.

Back at home in England and I found I had committed myself to write four entirely different book chapters for other people, all due within two months. I did manage to get these done as well as a revise and resubmit. But this was another two months lost to book writing. I found time to do some necessary reading but anxiety levels about the book’s due date were now on the rise.

So here I am now, having written the drafty draft of chapter two last week, working on chapter three. I aim to have this completed by Wednesday. Take out today for administrative work and other things I must do like references and reviews and that means I am writing like stink, to put not too fine a point on it, over the next two days.

And the problem is that I think that my nicely reworked structure still isn’t right. You see, I’m pretty sure that I now know all the bits that I need for the book. I’m a bit perturbed that there is more preliminary information than I had imagined in my reworked plan, but I can’t see how to leave any of it out. And I do know my argument. I think I have all of the ducks. I’m just not confident about how to line them up.

I can’t really afford to stop cranking out draft chapters otherwise I’ll never make the deadline. So I’m proceeding thinking that at some point there will be some very serious cut and paste reorganising of what I’ve already written.

I’ve been in this position before so I’m not as perturbed as I was the first time this happened. If I wasn’t quite so concerned about the impending hand-in date I’d be able to take a bit more pleasure in the creative aspects of this not-quite-sureness.

Because that’s really what it is. You can know your argument, do all the planning in the world (all of the tiny texts and storyboards and all of the reading notes to hand, and have done some of the writing ) and still find yourself in a position where you have to do some rethinking. Ironically, in my case, I have a sneaky suspicion that the next rethink might lead me back to something remarkably like my initial book proposal. Hey ho. So it goes.

The dawning of this-structure-isn’t-working feeling can happen when writing PhDs, when writing books and when writing journal articles. If it happens to you, you can choose to plod ahead with your initial plan or stop. My feeling is that I really don’t have much option but to follow my gut reaction and see where it leads me.

Ultimately you see, writing isn’t done to a formula. Even academic writing that conforms to a genre. It’s still about what you bring to it. What you imagine.

The act of writing is always about making the best sense that you can of your material and, yes, that may change as you develop your content in depth and detail. However, most academic writing is done to a deadline so there is always the question of balancing what ideally needs to be done with what realistically can be. That’s a juggle.

And that’s me right now, juggling what needs to be done and how it needs to be written and organised in the rapidly diminishing available time.

Wish me luck.



Posted in academic writing, book writing, deadline, time | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

proofreading tactics


I am the world’s worst proofreader of my own work. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I am not alone. Almost everyone has difficulty reading their own work for errors. Mark Twain apparently said in a letter to Walter Bessant

You think you are reading proof, whereas you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes & vacancies but you don’t know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along. Sometimes, no matter how carefully we examine a text, it seems there’s always one more little blunder waiting to be discovered. (1898)

Not just me/us then.

Yet when we read other people’s work, the errors just leap off the page and we can’t ignore them. How come we can see their mistakes, and not ours?

There is an explanation for our inability to see what we have written. Psychologists call this perceptual set. That’s a tendency to notice some things and not others. We take in some sensory data and screen out the rest. We are literally ‘set’ to see/hear things in a particular way.

There are two kinds of perceptual set errors:

  • selector error. This is when we already have expectations about what we are about to see/hear and this expectation focuses our attention – we see/hear what we are anticipating. So this is a case of I read what I know I meant to write.
  • interpreter error. This is when we take pre-existing understandings of data – categories, inferences, meanings – and apply them to the data we are presented with. So this is a case of This means what I think it means.

Now, perception is a complicated thing and all kinds of factors are said to be involved. Some, for instance, are cultural and some are simply to do with the way that we feel at the time.

Psychologists have had all kinds of fun experimenting with perceptual set – we are more likely to interpret ambiguous pictures as animals if we have been shown animal pictures beforehand. If we are hungry everything reminds us of food… well, you get the picture.

The major point for us as writers is that our perceptual set means that we can just fail to notice printing or writing errors because we expect to see particular words in a particular order, spelled in a particular way. And we see what we think is there. Just as Twain said.

And the implication of perceptual set is that we need to do something to break through our expectations. We need to jolt ourselves out of our mindset to become open to seeing the unexpected.

In proofreading there are some key ways to do the jolt – but they don’t all work for everyone every time.

Here are seven suggestions to try out:

  • Take a break. Step away from the manuscript and wait for a couple of weeks and come back again. Time does give you some distance on what you’ve done.
  • Get some algorithmic help. Spellcheck and Grammarly can do some of the work for you – if not all.
  • Change the medium and appearance. Print out the manuscript rather than look at it on the screen. Use a different font and a different colour ink or paper.
  • Change order. Read the manuscript backwards or in random order.
  • Use another sense. Swap from eyes to ears. Read the manuscript aloud to yourself – or get the computer to read it out to you.
  • Look for one problem at a time. Check your known writing tics, search for consistency in the ways you have used pronouns – we, you, I. Look at sentence structure (too long, same length, repetitious beginnings, etc). Then word repetition and next word choice. Then look for spelling and punctuation issues. And finally, check the referencing.


  • Set up a proofreading deal with a friend. Read each other’s work simply for typos, spellos and grammar. ( My preferred option!)

 But you need to do something. You can’t assume you’ll see the mistakes in your own writing. These seven tactics are a beginning repertoire to deal with perceptual (mind) set.

PS. And yes long-time patter readers, I’ve written about this before. But it was a long-time ago – and a reminder probably doesn’t hurt.

Posted in academic writing, proofreading | Tagged , | 2 Comments

going to a huge conference

I’m at a conference. A huge, utterly ginormous, gobsmackingly giant North American conference. As only the North Americans can do. It takes up a whole downtown conference centre and the meeting rooms of two additional hotels. The five-day conference runs from 8 am till 7 or 8 pm each night with no set break times.

A monstrous fifteen thousand or so people manoeuvre their way through the programme, trek from venue to venue, orienteer their way to their next room, queue for coffee in between sessions, and hope to find somewhere to sit for lunch. There are multiple and simultaneous keynotes, lectures, workshops and symposia as well as papers.

Every hour and a half, most of these fifteen thousand people get up and move. Each individual presentation is between thirty and twenty minutes long and ninety minute sessions operate to time – there is always a session after yours and people are anxious to get in and get set up. Prepare for the crowds, lifts that have stopped working, escalators and general hustle-bustle.

So this is actually a research town. A town that’s much bigger than your average village. The British town is officially between 1,000 and 100,000 people. This conference is getting on to be what would be classified as a large town, as large starts at 20,000. Just think what it takes to make a town function. Conferences as large as this take years in the planning and have large logistical teams to make sure that people can get registered, housed, and timetabled. They don’t always get everything right, and there are the inevitable cancellations, changes and complaints to deal with before, during and after the actual event.

This Sumo size conference is not just about giving papers. This is academic business writ large. There are meetings of journal Editorial boards and sessions where you can meet the Editors of just about every journal in the field. There are hiring sessions where you can meet and greet prospective employers and try to impress them with your suited bootedness and gorgeously laid out portfolio. And there are social events. Publishers hold receptions, as do various universities. You are supposed to have invitations to such events, not gatecrash, as they are primarily intended to provide an opportunity for colleagues to meet up in the middle of a busy conference schedule.

There’s also the book exhibition where every known academic press in the field has a stall. There are research companies and technology businesses represented too. My conference has ninety-nine booths altogether. Exhibitors are only supposed to display books that have been published in the last year. If you ever wanted to see academic productivity on display here it is. How did one discipline write so much in one year, I think to myself. Again. (And I must admit to feeling as if there is no point writing anything to add to this library.)

I always have two questions about conferences this big. One. Is a conference this monstrous worth going to? And a related point – Two. How does anyone make their way through this kind of event?

I guess the answer to the first question depends on whether you really do have to go. If you are in the US then this conference is just about mandatory. And if you’re elsewhere, then it is interesting to go at least once so you can see and experience just what a big academic conference is like. I went every year for a while but then got tired of it. I haven’t been for nearly ten years and I’m really only going to this one because it’s in Toronto and I can do other academic business at the same time. And to be fair, the conference is pretty competitive to get into, so there is some prestige in getting your paper through the reviewing process. This may matter a lot to some people for job-getting and promotion.

But I reckon whether you are there for the experience or because you must, then there are a few things you really do need to do in order to make the whole shebang manageable.

Get organised. That’s the mantra. Sort as much out in advance as you can.

If you don’t want to feel completely alienated from the entire conference, spending your five days wandering lonely as the proverbial cloud looking for someone you might know, go with some friends, or organise to meet some people you know while you’re there. Line up a couple of social events and dinners.

Read the programme in advance. Most conferences give you the option of a hard copy programme or digital and either one is helpful for pre-organisation. Online programmes are usually available a few weeks beforehand. Sort out your timetable and where you want to be when. Consult the conference map. Plot your routes as well if it looks as if getting to places will be tricky.

It’s good to find a special interest group or two that you want to follow. Most SIGs are programmed in the same set of rooms for the whole conference. Communities of academics gather around special interest groups – there can be ongoing conversations as presenters often refer back to other presentations and discussions continue between sessions. SIGs are a great place to meet like-minded people to share ideas and, well who knows what might follow from that.

Prepare for queues for food, and water. Bring a water bottle. It’s easier to refill than buy new bottles all the time. Bring some emergency food with you in case the queue is too long, what’s left looks disgusting or they’ve simply run out. Locate a couple of coffee places outside of the conference venue and get your re-useable cup ready. You can’t really prepare for loo queues other than plan not to go to every session – the ladies are always going to be more available during session times. Oh, and a small pack of tissues too, just in case the loo paper situation is desperate.

Also consider your clothes. If you’re meeting publishers or hirers then, of course, you have to look smartish. But you do need to think about just being at the conference too. Shoes you can walk and stand in – sometimes the sessions you go to will be standing room only. Comfort – sometimes you might have to sit on the floor, you may need layers to cope with the aircon inside and the weather out. A decent bag that is not going to give you backache or shoulder problems and that will hold your supplies as well as papers and books.

Making connections. Business cards are helpful in big conferences. It’s a simple way to provide your contact details to people. And, if the presenter doesn’t have a paper but says you can email them for a copy, jot your name on your business card with “email title of paper please” and hand it to them. That’s if you don’t want to have a conversation or if you can’t interrupt the conversation they’re already in.

There’s more you can do to make big conferences work for you too. I always take some time out to visit the city that my conference is in, usually it’s a gallery or museum or a mandatory must-see local landmark. Otherwise, if you’re in a corporate hotel and a big conference centre, you could just be anywhere.

I’m treating my conference as a writing retreat. So I’m going to a couple of sessions each day, keeping social events to a minimum and writing every day. It doesn’t feel as much like being at a conference, but it’s certainly productive!


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introductions – establishing significance


Introductions have to do a lot of work in a short space of time. The beginning of the conventional journal article, for instance, has to tell the reader what the paper is about and why it is important. And do that very quickly and persuasively. In a few paragraphs the opening gambit must establish a warrant for the paper – and its significance. It is crucial to establish at the outset that the reader will know something important, good and/or useful by the time they reach the conclusion.

Now, establishing significance is not the same as gap-spotting. It isn’t necessarily significant that nobody has written about a particular topic in this specific way before. Nope. The topic may just not be interesting or important enough for anyone to have bothered. Harsh but true. The topic has to have some merit, other than the absence of prior attention. Neglect isn’t significant per se.

So how do you address significance? Well, usually what you do is to locate the paper in a context. This might be policy or practice, an event, an intellectual puzzle, a way of thinking about a problem. It’s the context makes the topic important.

But there are ways and ways of addressing context. Ways of flagging up what actually is significant about your particular paper. So let’s look at an example.

Imagine you are going to write a paper base on your literature review about academic plagiarism. There are two obvious ways you could begin your paper.

Option One.

Increasing numbers of linguists, higher education scholars and philosophers have become interested in academic plagiarism. Studies have for example examined the burgeoning number of companies supplying essays on demand, the motivations of students who buy papers and the effectiveness of lecturers’ plagiarism detecting strategies. This paper adds to understandings of academic plagiarism by systematically analysing this extant research to see what further implications might be drawn for university anti-plagiarism practice.

So this introduction finds its significance warrant in adding to what’s already been done. And that will lead to implications for practice.

And the alternative, Option Two.

Academic plagiarism is an increasing problem for students and universities alike. Students who produce all-my-own-work resent competing for grades and places with peers who pay for their papers. Universities worry that their credibility as purveyors of academic work is diminished. To date, the major solution has been a combination of proprietary software and the development of administrative guidelines about dealing with those caught cheating. As there is no sign of the plagiarism plague getting any smaller, there is an urgent need to find other interventions. This paper offers a systematic review of the research literature which provides new possibilities for action, as well as pointers for further research.

This paper finds its significance in higher education policy and practice. It too promises possible solutions.

Now there is nothing wrong with either of these options. They are both OK.  And you will see examples of both of these kinds of introductions in journals. However, they each do different kinds of work. The introductions signal papers which live in different worlds.

Stephen Pinker argues that academics live in two universes – one is the world of the thing that they study– and the other is the world of their profession: getting articles published, going to conferences, keeping up with the trends and gossip. Pinker says that most of a researcher’s waking hours are spent in the second world and it’s easy for him (sic) to confuse the two. (p 40-41)

Pinker says that writing an introduction like Option One is the result of such confusion. Option One, remember, had its context as the second researcher world of literatures. Pinker is pretty down on this option because he says it makes the activities of professors more important than the real world problem that they are studying.  As he puts it,

No offence, but very few people are interested in how professors spend their time. Classic style ignores the hired help and looks directly at what they are being paid to study. (p. 41)

Pinker sees an introduction which focuses on the world of the profession as narcissism. Researchers have lost sight of what is most important, he suggests. Instead of writing directly on their topic, he says, they discuss the workings and interests of what he calls their ‘guild’ – other researchers and their obsessions.

While there is a case for writing for graduate students or insiders in a disciplinary community, Pinker argues, a lot of academics actually aim to make a difference in the world but write in a self-serving way. The work is inward-looking, rather than looking out to the world which it hopes to influence. It constructs a kind of echo-chamber which is alienating to potential readers who are interested in the substantive topic, not the state and scope of the literatures. It looks in the rear vision mirror, so to speak.

Pinker might also have gone on to say that it is actually much easier to write concluding statements about the significance of a paper and the research it reports when the introduction starts with the actual topic. And not the state of scholarship. Remember our example –  Option One situates the paper as contributing to an emerging body of research on plagiarism, Option Two sets the problem as widespread plagiarism and the answer as the paper.  Option Two thus makes a clearer case for significance – it might change what people do about the problem, rather than first if all what they read.

(Yes I hear you. Sometimes, of course, it is important to change what people read and think – but such a paper would start by talking about why particular kinds of reading and thinking are a problem; it wouldn’t start with the literatures.)

So how useful do you think Pinker’s distinction is? Well, you mightn’t agree with him entirely. And I’m sure you can think of more exceptions to his rule.

But nevertheless his view may be a useful provocation to consider – is the significance of the study found in the academic world or in the world in which the substantive topic occurs. Even if you don’t quite share Pinker’s characterisation of academic ivory-towerism, he may still offer a something significant to consider when writing an introduction.

Photo by Elijah Hail on Unsplash


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revise and resubmit


Yep. Those dreaded words when you get the email back from the journal. R and R. Anything but Rest and Relaxation. Groan. In essence, the message says We have considered your paper and we have decided that – well it’s just not going to cut it. At this point. However, we see enough in it to give you another shot. But only one. And (to steal Ru Paul’s words) Don’t **** it up.

Now the usual advice – and I give it myself – is that when you’re working out what corrections to make it’s helpful to go through the reviewers’ comments and put them in a two column table.  You put what the reviewer said in one column and what you did in the other. As in…

Add more detail to methods I added four sentences about sampling and two about analysis
Use more literature particularly look at x,y,z Added xyz to literatures section

Now the make-a-table approach is pretty well always going to work for minor corrections and probably even for the bigger major corrections. But it might not be enough for an R and R.

The key work in R and R is REVISEre-vision, re-imagine, re-think. This may well be more than simply adding in a few sentences here or there or a new section. An R and R not always going to be a ‘tinkering around’ leaving most of the paper intact. Just adding and deleting a few things is a correction, not a re-imagining. In fact, most of the time, when reviewers recommend R and R they are looking for some pretty big changes. Gah – it’s likely to be a pretty substantial re-write.

It’s tough to front up to a paper and try to rethink it. To start again. To try to work out how it might be different. That’s because we get attached to our words. We may even like the paper that we wrote and find it pretty galling that the reviewers didn’t. We may want to try to get away with the least possible number of corrections. We may seriously not want to even consider the possibility that what we are being asked to do is a lot of extra hard work. That’s natural. But that is what we are being asked to consider.

And here a pause. Just to say that I speak here from experience. And lots of it. In just the last twelve months, my colleagues and I have had two R and Rs. Other papers went through with minor changes, but, yes, we had two papers where we were told R and R. It happens to all of us.

Our problems weren’t to do with the actual writing of the paper but what we were writing about. The reviewers of the particular journals just didn’t find the arguments we were making particularly interesting or persuasive. Now, it wasn’t all bad. Writing the papers had been very useful for our research project – they really helped to advance our analysis. But they just weren’t suited to the journals we wanted to publish in.

So, when faced with the two the R and Rs, we had choices – take the papers as they were to other journals, give up on the papers altogether, or try to do enough tweaks to get past the reviewers. Or – we could rethink the papers. Yes, rethink. Go back to the beginning and start over.

In both cases, that’s what we did. We went back to the beginning.

One paper didn’t require as much rethinking as the other. Paper A reviewers suggested some new literatures for us to read. We read them and then constructed a somewhat different argument – more nuanced perhaps than the one we had originally submitted. The title of the paper stayed the same, but there was a new abstract, a new theoretical discussion which incorporated the new literatures, a new thread of analysis and a new conclusion.

The second paper, paper B,  had a much more dramatic change. The reviewers didn’t seem to get our argument and found the topic and our empirical work not particularly interesting. They seemed to say that our theorisation was pretty incomprehensible.Or light weight. One or the other.  But potentially interesting. So we switched the focus of the paper and it became about the theoretical development since that was what seemed to be of interest as well as at issue. We used our empirical material – which we love – to show how the theoretical work might be done.  The paper ended up with a new title, abstract and argument. It was almost entirely rewritten with only the methods section and some of the empirical reporting carried over.

While we might be able to explain the changes made to paper A through a table, paper B wouldn’t fit in a table at all. The changes were holistic. We had taken a cue from the reviewers’ comments and re-imagined and re-designed the lot. Holus-bolus. It was a new paper born from the remains of the first one.

I guess you want to know if the papers got published once the R and Rs were done. Yes. Both are now in print. But neither of them would be if we hadn’t been prepared to just go with where the rethinking took us. If we weren’t ready to make whatever changes followed on from the new literatures (paper A) or whatever resulted from trying to explain our theoretical development in sufficient detail for it to be understood. We were ready and able in both cases for a complete and comprehensive overhaul. And Paper B was just this – a complete and total reworking.

There’s a clear and obvious moral to this story. And it’s that R and R may mean more than a few additions and deletions. It often requires you to have the courage to say – wrong journal – or the courage to say Oh. I need to put the first version to one side and try to understand the reviewers’ overall message, not just the individual points they are making along the way. I just have to suck it up.

So some questions to help in this R and R revisioning process – What am I being told about the paper, what’s the reviewers’ story about my paper, where do the reviewers actually think the problem is?  The structure of the paper? The argument isn’t evidenced? If I had read some different literatures I’d potentially change my argument? The theory doesn’t fit or isn’t well developed? The paper doesn’t fit with the interests of the journal and I need to shift focus if I want to be published here?

These kinds of questions orient you to consider the paper in its entirety. Take a helicopter view. See the paper in the landscape of the journal and its readers. Adopt an evaluative stance to your own work.

But ultimately R and R is a question of having the will to chuck the paper up in the air and see where it lands.  And this might be a case of singing to yourself…





There once was a writer called Dr Finnegan

Wrote a paper they thought’d get in again

Got an R and R back and had to bin again

Poor old Dr Finnegan. … Begin again.



Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, journal article, reviewer speak, revise and resubmit, revision | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

giving feedback on writing – be specific


One of the characteristics of academic life is feedback. We get it whether we want it or not. Students feedback on our teaching. Reviewers feedback on our papers. Supervisors feedback on draft thesis texts. Of course, most of us also have to not only receive feedback but also give it. We give feedback to people when we read their work in progress. This may be as part of a formal writing group, or when your best mate asks you to look over something they have written.

Sometimes feedback can be incredibly helpful. At other times feedback – well you know all about Reviewer 2 – is soul destroying because it’s belittling, patronising and rude, aimed at the person and not the writing or the teaching.  A lot of feedback, however, is not this. It’s just vague, general and really hard to grasp. What does this mean, you wonder? What am I meant to do with this?

So how do you best give feedback? Well, obvious really. When we read a drafty text, it’s helpful to remember the kind of feedback that we find most useful – and that is almost always feedback that is specific. Feedback that says something particular. Specific feedback gives you something to go on. You know what’s at issue. You can either reject it or deal with it.

So let’s start with the good stuff so we can see the point of being particular.

Rather than simply saying something like This is such a great paper, it is more helpful to the writer to give some details about the specific strengths of their writing.

  • The anecdote you used at the start was a really effective way to communicate the context
  • The methods section was succinct but gave me all of the detail I needed to know so I could trust your account
  • The ways in which you discussed the literatures without losing sight of your work was really informative.

And so on.

This kind of specific feedback is convincing – you have actually read the text, you are not just being nice for the sake of it, or being positive because you are nervous about the response you’ll get. What’s more, specific feedback tells the writer what they should keep in this draft and what they can continue to do in their future writing.

Being specific in feedback can feel scary. Particularly if it’s not all positive. We are often afraid to say anything critical for fear that the person on the receiving end won’t be able to deal with it. That’s sometimes true of course. Some people really don’t want feedback at all. And it is usually a good idea not to overwhelm people, not to load up with too much detail all at once.

Yes, but… Most often it’s the indeterminate feedback that people feel worst about. That’s because it leaves them clueless.

Comments like “ I really didn’t quite get what you were trying to say” or “ This example didn’t work for me” are unhelpful as they simply leave the writer knowing that there was something amiss, but they don’t have any idea what it is. What do they have to do to make something “ work for you”? What unknown piece of the text can they rewrite so that you “get it”?

Most writers prefer feedback with some level of detail. Rather than feeling at a complete loss, they have concrete pointers to what they might need to do.

So you could for example say

  • Your argument doesn’t work for me.

At least the writer knows it’s the argument that is at issue. But you could say something much more specific like

  • Your argument doesn’t work for me because you haven’t yet taken any counter views into account
  • Your argument doesn’t work for me because there isn’t enough evidence provided
  • Your argument doesn’t work for me because there seems to be a step missing between saying x and then saying y.

You could say

  • The ending of the paper was weak

Or you could say

  • The ending of the paper was a summary of what had gone before. There was no So What
  • The ending of the paper needed a discussion of the implications of the study
  • The ending of the paper would have been much stronger if you had argued that the study had clear pointers for policy and practice. And perhaps there was also more research that needed to be done about x.

You could say

  • I got lost

Or you could say

  • I got lost because I needed some kind of map at the start where you told me what was going to happen
  • I got lost because the heading and subheadings didn’t help me keep track of the argument
  • I got lost because you changed from past to present tense continually and I didn’t know when you were talking about what you’d done and when you were talking about what you are arguing now.

More detailed feedback tells the writer what you were hoping to read, what you were expecting them to have done. And this level of detail provides them with something to look at and something that they can change if they want to.

Giving writers specific feedback – and I really am not talking about correcting grammar here, but feedback which is geared to particular aspects of the writing – asks more of you as a reader.

You have to be alert to your responses as you go through the text. You might note the points where you thought something might have gone awry. You then have to consider your responses, and work out what the problem was. Why did you feel this way at this point in the paper? What did you expect to see that was missing? What was there that seemed out of place? What did you want more or less detail about? What did you need to be told?

And giving feedback is always about thinking about how you would like to be treated. You don’t need kid gloves. But feedback does need to be appreciative – you have to acknowledge what has been done as well as what might be improved.

Let’s be honest. Some people do approach the task of giving feedback determined to point out each and every problem they encounter. This is not helpful. It is undermining. Don’t let this be you. The point of feedback is to be discriminating about the key issues that you see. If there are big structural questions, then deal with those and leave the rest alone.

Finally, it’s important not to worry about whether you are good enough, whether you know enough to provide feedback. If you are doing doctoral work, or beyond, then you are already a very experienced reader, and that means you know quite enough to make an informed comment.

And an informed, specific and appreciative comment is most often just what a writer wants to hear. It gives them something they can get their teeth into and chew over. It gives them food for thought, and potentially a direction for revision.

Be that reader. Give specific feedback.


Post inspired by Joni Cole 2006 Toxic feedback. Helping writers survive and thrive

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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