learning to accept reviewer feedback as a gift

This is guest post from Dr Liz Bennett. Liz is a Senior Lecturer at University of Huddersfield. She completed her doctorate in September 2012 and has submitted a couple of papers to journals based on chapters from her thesis. Here she reflects on receiving reviewer feedback.

When I first heard someone refer to feedback as being a ‘gift’ I thought it a ridiculous idea -that I should value someone criticising me or my work. However the idea feels particularly appropriate when receiving feedback on journal articles. The reviewers have taken time to read my work and have done so with care and attention. They are offering me their insights without any significant personal gain. They have provided detailed and helpful suggestions on where the work might be improved. They have challenged me and made me think more deeply and through this process my work is better. This is a gift: someone giving me something that I value and am grateful for. This is my rational response to accepting reviewer feedback.

There is also a personal and emotional dimension too. I experience getting reviews as personally challenging. The reviewers have identified areas of weakness and exposed them to me. My ideas and my writing are below the standard of others. “Needs substantial changes” seems damning. It is not that this is unexpected: I knew that critique would be likely and am willing to take on the feedback, but I experience it as challenging to my identity.

Becoming a published journal author is about my developing academic identity. It is about me and my ideas being credible in the academic world. If my work needs revising, if it is in some way flawed then doubt my sense of worth. And when the reviews appear to challenge some fundamental aspects of my thesis then question what I wrote for my doctorate.

Reviewer feedback is another challenge to overcome at the end of what was already a long journey to get my doctorate (5 years for my part time professional doctorate). Along that journey there were many challenges and set backs. Reviewer feedback is another one of those. It is tempting to want to move on to something new and more inviting rather than to revisit things which I thought were finalised two years ago. It requires stamina and self-belief to find the emotional resource to read the critique and to deal with this hurdle. It requires commitment to my ideas and determination to want to share these with the academic community to keep returning to the paper to do the revisions being.

How are stamina and self belief developed and maintained for a long time ? Are there ways you have found to achieve this?.

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writing in pyjamas

I’m reflecting on the past week’s writing, and in particular reflecting on blogging about book-writing. I wasn’t sure that writing about what we were doing was going to be of interest to anyone, and I’ve been surprised by the response. Lots of people have emailed and tweeted to say that they enjoyed reading our daily progress.

I suspect that some interest might relate to the initial inclination I had about posting about our work – you just don’t read academics writing about their actual process of authoring very much. So perhaps it was a glimpse into something normally private, like inadvertently staring through someone’s front window as you go past on the bus. I’m sure that everyone writes books in their own way, and finding out how others go about constructing a big text could be a useful lens onto a practice other than your own – even if only to say I won’t do that!!

I’m quite confident – or perhaps I mean paranoid here – that other people probably do less throat clearing and rethinking than we do. It’s not that we suddenly decide that our initial proposal was wrong or, even worse, that we just threw something together to get a contract. We really believed in our initial structure and contents at the time. It’s just that as time goes on, and as our thinking moves on a bit, one way to get back into the writing after time away is to go back to the proposal. And then we talk and then, well before we know it, we’ve started to refine, rework and redo before you can say “hey deadline”.

Getting a secure argument, outline and angle is really important to the way we do things. We don’t write a book – or chapter, or anything really – without a very strong sense of the overall direction. I know that some fiction writers say that they write to find out where things are going, but we don’t. This is not to say that we don’t have ideas along the way, and we do make additions we hadn’t thought about to start with. But we are advocates of planning in academic writing, and we practice this too.

I have a hunch that our publisher might have found it a trifle unsettling to see something other than the finished text, to have a tiny look at what we actually do. So many false starts and reconsiderings… the incredibly messy process of producing a book is probably not conducive to publisher confidence! However, the good news is that since yesterday, he has taken our proposed new title, checked it out with both the UK and the US and – it’s all systems go on the new. While we still have a bit of refining to do on what comes after the colon, the runner, we are basically now settled on the title, and the very particular twist we will bring to doctoral writing. Thankyou Philip. We will now proceed without any more chopping and changing, I promise.

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book writing/ half day seven

Today was a little period of review before Barbara left. We had the option of going through everything we’d written in some detail, or just doing a brief reprise. We opted for the latter, adding into the text the various things we’d need to find, or develop, in order to complete the section we’d done.

What happened next was a fine end to the writing. It was typical of the way we work really. From a chance remark, a bit of silly banter, came a new title, and a new angle for the whole book.

This kind of serendipity is one of the characteristics of our co writing – periods of silliness where we just play with ideas. We don’t try to do anything particularly, it’s not a we-must-now-be-creative-and spontaneous. But quite often, unexpected things do happen as a result of these conversations. It’s one of the benefits of having a co –writer, the dialogue. We often just chatter and in doing so, we come up with jokes, or little strings of words, or a new name for things – and these fit back into the work.

We’d been having trouble with the title. Our original version was a play on the notion of new writing basics. However the publisher already had a series called something rather like this, so we couldn’t use it…. We had to go back to the drawing board.

The thing about a title is that it orients not only the introduction but also the way in which some of the major bits of content are set up. So when we had to junk the idea of basics, we settled for something neutral and innocuous but we lost more than the title. We couldn’t really get the kind of angle that we would usually have to position our writing.

We got terribly excited about the new title this morning – it doesn’t seem to be one anyone else has used. I immediately emailed our publisher to check it out, but we also went back to the introduction we’d written on day one and rejigged it in the light of the potential new title. Ooh, indrawn breath.

This was a great way to round off the writing. We’re enthusiastic about how we can use the title and its new angle and now we just have to wait a bit to make sure that it’s acceptable to the publisher!

Fingers crossed.

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book writing, day six

Today we got up rather earlier than usual and were breakfasted and seated at the desk at 7.46 precisely. Yes, yes in pjs. It’s a habit now.

We were pretty determined to break the back of the last section by lunch time. And we did.

Today’s piece of work was focused on the literature review. We’ve written about literature work before, and we didn’t want to repeat ourselves. Not good for the reader to get too great a sense of déjà vu from one book to the other. But of course, I’ve blogged a lot about literature work too. In fact I’ve blogged two actual literature reviews. We decided that we would use some of this blog material in today’s section, but we’d reframe it so that it reads differently.

This was not as straightforward as it sounds. Converting blog posts to a book manuscript is not a simple matter of cut and paste. The blog is more informal and sometimes more repetitive than we want the book to be. So even though there is some economy in using something that already exists, it’s also a bit of a pain to rewrite it.

We were pretty close to done by midday and time for lunch.

Because we’d decided to go out for dinner tonight, we had to eat in the apartment today. The kitchen is equipped with a shiny stainless steel stove-top with two giant restaurant style wok burners. However only a small frypan and saucepan have been provided for cooking, so lunch required a bit of improvisation.

Omelette, tofu and greens. But it wasn’t, by her own admission, Barbara’s finest cooking moment. However it was edible enough. Just not the very tasty little treat we’ve come to expect from lunch. It was quite sufficient to sustain us to finish off this section by 3 this afternoon.

We have written over 12000 words since we’ve been here. While this is not as productive as our Singapore writing marathon, where we managed about 4000 words a day, doing this amount is OK. This book requires more new thinking than the journal book did. Because we are just beginning, we have also had to set up the various types of texts we want to include in the book. Now we have them, we should save a bit of time from now on.

Tomorrow Barbara goes. We will have a couple of hours in the morning to look at what we’ve done and put in some place holders where additional material is needed. We’ll also make a list of where we think we are up to, so that when we start again at the end of May we can just get cracking on the next section.

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book writing, day five

The brain is a wonderful thing. I woke up this morning knowing what was wrong with our first chunk. I’d been feeling dissatisfied with it since we started, but hadn’t been able to put my finger on what the problem actually was. So it was very gratifying to wake up with both the problem and the solution. Finding these missing pieces also alleviated my anxiety about there not being enough words yet, as there will now be quite sufficient in this section.

What was even better was that when I told Barbara what I thought we should do, she agreed. As it happened, she had also been working overnight. She’d started on a new poem, about writing as it turns out – and it might end up in the book too. Well, why not.

Having agreed what we were to do today, we had a quick bowl of muesli, fruit and yoghurt and got down to it. Oh yes, still in pjs of course. We put in a solid four hours, largely with Barbara at the keyboard, and doubled our word count from yesterday. 3000 plus new words on material we hadn’t put in the other books, and words that we hadn’t even realised we’d needed yesterday.

So what was this new stuff? Well it was about the many things you have to do to at the start of your PhD – organising your space, time, software and using writing as a means of reflecting on the research – generally getting your life organized. If you don’t get these things sorted at the start then you pay for it later. (Yes doc researchers, it includes my well known “You must get bibliographic software” rave!) These kinds of ‘everyday life’ matters often feature on blogs about academic writing and/or the PhD, and are often highlighted in stories about creative writers. The physicality and materiality of academic writing however is less often put in #acwri books, but it is now in ours.

We finished in cracking time this morning and were able to get down to lunch at something like a reasonable time. Today we decided to try out a Thai restaurant which had had reasonable web reviews. We were assaulted by a very hot and salty tomyum soup which left us both gasping and in need of frozen yoghurt to finish off. A mandatory quick trip to the supermarket to refresh our supplies of grapes and jackfruit and then back to the apartment and the laptop to make some small additions to the morning’s text.

Later in the afternoon I went off to have coffee with a colleague from our Malaysia campus while Barbara sweated in the gym and dodged the mosquito fogging.

Tomorrow we expect to finish off the first chunk. Tonight we will wrestle – again – with the rather disappointing television options available to us, but will probably end up reading – again – rather than watch more predictable American killing sprees set in apparently identikit state capitals.

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book writing, day four

Yippee. Today we wrote 3118 words, about half of the first chunk of the book. There are six or seven chunks in total, some of them much longer than this first one.

We began writing quite early today, at around 7 30 am. We were both up, breakfasted and ready by then, albeit still in our pjs. Two days running doing the not-dressed-yet thing. But hey, it seems to work.

We began with a clear idea of what we needed to do. Yesterday we’d generated a list of the content we wanted to include in this first chunk. So today it was a pretty straightforward task, we assumed, to just start at the top of the list and work our way through. And indeed, this turned out to be the case.

This first chunk of the book is about reading and notetaking. It’s something I’ve taught a lot, and also blogged about, so it wasn’t too hard to generate the words. It was more a case of us thinking together of the best way, and sometimes a new way, to present the information, rather than having to work out what needed to be said. We even found a way to insert a bit of talk about chick lit… no explanation now, you’ll just have to wait and read it.

The good thing is that we are well on the way to working out the formatting for each of the chunks. It’s a bit soon to be totally sure of how they will go but we do have some defined elements that will appear all the way through – strategies, stories, metaphors, identity insights.

We went at the writing pretty steadily till about midday but then a ghastly loud repetitive grating industrial noise from outside disrupted our thinking-talking-writing. No point trying to work through it so it was showers and off to lunch. We were at the point where we needed to think about what we’d done and whether there were any glaring gaps or things in the wrong place. And we reasoned that, since we might as well reflect in a pleasant environment, we might as well go back to the Chinese handpulled noodle restaurant for more soup.

Inspiration arrived with the garlic greens. We could make a small but important addition to the morning’s text. So, after lunch and a small altruistic contribution to the Malaysian fashion industry, and after a coffee with a couple of Australian academics working here, we headed back to the apartment. It then took us only ten minutes or so to add in the new piece.

It seems pretty likely that we’ll get a first draft of the first chunk completed by Thursday, leaving us Friday morning to sort out odds and sods.

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book writing, day three

It was a pj kind of day. That’s a day where you eat breakfast , but don’t actually get out of your nightgear until you’ve done a substantial slab of writing. So picture us sitting side by side, a bit dishevelled but talking and typing, talking and typing from 830 am to 12.

Barbara was right to be relaxed about the introduction. Even though we reduced our six key points from yesterday to four today, it was pretty straightforward writing. It only took us three or so hours to finish with our kicking off point. We consolidated the ‘tone’ we’d been working on yesterday – chatty and casual. And I got to have another crack at those people who maintain that all academic writing is dense, dull and dismal- it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s a key message we want doctoral researchers to understand, and our mission is of course to try to help them do just that. And we were both more than a bit pleased to have got through an explanation of our planned book contents in terms of aims and principles, without having to do a dreary trawl through each precise chapter/section.

Then we started to look at what to do next. Because we have only three more days together, we must make sure that we know what we are doing the next time we meet, in July. Because this book isn’t following the conventional chapter format, we have to sort out the alternative structure we have been imagining. We must now make this a reality. So we’ve decided to leave writing the next thing in the book, an outline of the key concepts we use, till later. We know what these concepts are as they are the foundation of our work, and they won’t be a problem to write. Instead, we need now to get clear about our new stuff, the things we do in this book that aren’t in the others. We have to get the substantive style of the sections set too.

This bit was hard. We started to talk. Then we showered, dressed and went to lunch. Today it was a chicken biryani served on banana leaves. Then a brief wait while KL got drenched in a tropical downpour. A pretty substantial meal meant that neither of us had the energy to do a great deal more actual writing when we got back to the apartment. However, we had to get ourselves ready to write. We had to ensure that tomorrow will be productive.

We went back to look at the detailed ideas that we’d had last year for five discrete sections, equating to five phases of doctoral work. Oh, oh really!! How did we get to that? Why were we thinking that? Surely that isn’t right. It was back to the drawing board to list the actual contents one by one, so that we could re-sort them. As it turned out the re-sort got us back to five sections, but these are a little different to the ones in the plan.

This is our third rethink actually in as many days. That’s OK, the more we go over the plan, the better the book will be.

The five sections we have seem to be workable now, but we really do need to have an extended go at one of them. We need to have a section done by Friday, and we will begin with the first one. We have informally entitled this “What the **** am I doing in/with this PhD? “ The title won’t stay like that of course, but this naming will keep us focused on the major issue we are addressing. All that reading, all that worrying about the question that is the start of doctoral research. That’s where we are starting tomorrow.

So, now it’s getting ready for writing time again. While each section will use some bits of posts from this blog, there will also be much more. So my task this evening is to cut and paste the bits of posts that we might use and put them in a folder. Barbara will tidy up our outlines from today and we might even do some more talking about the contents of section one.

Tomorrow we start on the book proper. Three days getting ready and now, finally, we begin the real work.

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