Many academic writers – from students to experienced researchers – ask their colleagues, their peers, to give them feedback on texts. However, not all of them receive helpful feedback. The major problem, as far as I have heard, lies in an inadequate instruction the writers give their colleagues. If they just ask for feedback, the chances are good that they won’t get what they need. That’s not only disappointing for the writers, but also for their colleagues who have wasted their own precious time by giving unhelpful feedback. The question is, how can you avoid this situation and get quality feedback. You might not be able to completely control how others read your text and respond, but you can try to make the best of it.
Whenever you want feedback on a text, give clear instructions. Don’t just give your text away, hoping to receive exactly what you need. That might never happen. You have to decide what your colleague should look at.
First, start your instruction with some context: tell your colleague about the kind of text it is, what the target readers might expect, and at which stage of the writing process you currently are. The last point in particular will influence the next instruction.
Second, tell your colleague what he or she should look at in the text. If it’s a first draft of an article, you are not yet interested in grammar, spell check or other small things like that. You might want to know whether the arguments work or whether the structure makes sense. If you are handing over the final version, you might include the small things as well. Whatever instructions you give, decide what kind of information about your text will help you at the current stage of writing. This will also ensure that your colleague won’t waste time with things you don’t want to hear about. Instead it will help your colleague to focus and give you the best possible feedback.
When you finally get your feedback, don’t justify yourself when facing critical comments. Save your energy for when you get back to work. It won’t help you to tell your colleague face to face why you did what you did or why you can’t implement his or her comment. Do it in the text, where you need to convince your future readers.
When you receive feedback from different colleagues, you might get diverging or contradictory comments. Don’t think that you need to implement everything. You are the author, so you decide whether and how your text will change. Ultimately, it’s you who has to defend the arguments, the structure and so on. Only include things you are convinced of and that you can defend.
If you instruct your colleagues in this way, you will have done your part in the feedback process. You can only hope that they will know how to give proper feedback: feedback that is motivating, critical but helpful, and kind.