Most students and researchers know intuitively how to give good feedback. However, it doesn’t hurt to make ones ideas explicit once in a while in order to see whether they can be improved. This is also an opportunity to detect some less favorable habits when giving feedback.
The following questions may help you to find out more about your ideas and habits: Where is your focus when reading the text? How do you phrase your feedback? How does the author of the text normally react to your feedback? Why do you take the time to give feedback? What do you expect when receiving feedback?
As I wrote in the last post on the writer’s perspective, feedback should be motivating, critical but helpful, and kind. The purpose of giving feedback, thus, isn’t to bash your colleague, to make him or her depressed, or to tear apart his or her text. That’s not the way anybody likes to get feedback. In order to ensure that your feedback is as motivating and helpful as possible, consider the following suggestions.
First, when given instructions, follow them closely. If your colleague wants to know more about the text’s structure, give feedback on the structure. If he or she wants to know whether there are still spelling mistakes, focus on them. Don’t look for things you weren’t ask to look for. If you must add some comments on things the person didn’t instruct you to look for, always ask whether he or she wants to hear them.
Second, give positive as well as critical comments (if possible in this order, maybe ending your feedback with another positive comment). While commenting, you don’t have to go into detail and tell the person what you think should be done. If you have a suggestion for improvement, first ask whether he or she wants to hear it at all. Otherwise it’s a waste of air. It’s usually enough to just point to a passage and say that you don’t understand a word, a sentence, the argument, or whatever it is. You can say, “I stumbled upon this or that”. The person will have to figure out how to revise, so that future readers don’t stumble. Or, you can say “Something is missing for me here” or “Here, I think this is redundant”. You don’t need to start a long soliloquy; it might confuse the person.
Third, phrase your comments in personal terms, as in the examples above. To say “The text doesn’t work like this”, “You can’t do this”, or “This is great” is too general. Your comments are your opinion about the text, even if you think it generally applies. Giving general, impersonal comments might intimidate the author and make him or her anxious. That’s why you should always phrase your comments in a way that shows that they are your personal opinion: “I like your text, because…”; “I don’t think you need paragraph six”; “I missed the reference to…”. You can also say “As a non-specialist, I…” if you have a different disciplinary background than the author. Phrases like these make it easier for the author to accept them. If they think they apply in general and need to be implemented, they might get into trouble.
Fourth, be as specific as possible. For each comment, point to the passage in question (word, sentence, paragraph). Make sure the author knows what you are talking about. This is crucial especially when there are mutiple people giving feedback on one text.
And last, don’t edit if you’re asked to give feedback. Giving feedback and editing are two different things. Only do what you’re asked for. Again, it saves time and energy for both the author and yourself.