Friday, July 22, 2016

Using Feedback Effectively: Book excerpt

I had an opportunity to post an excerpt of my book, Getting the Best of Your Dissertation, on the Textbook and Academic Authors Association blog (, and I'm reposting it here because I can (formatting altered).

A good writing practice—a habit of coming back to work on your project regularly—is the foundation of good writing. One of the biggest challenges to many writing practices is to keep going after receiving difficult feedback. And perhaps an even bigger challenge is the fear of receiving feedback, which often contributes to writer’s block. If you’re submitting to a publisher, a journal, to your dissertation committee, or anyone else who might provide feedback, it will help if you feel like you can use the feedback you get effectively.

The following is a slightly edited excerpt from my book Getting the Best of Your Dissertation: Practical Pespectives for Effective Research:

To get the most out of feedback, you want to respond as un-emotionally as possible. Step back from your work and consider the quality of the feedback and try to understand what you can get out of it. Not all feedback is equal. Some will help; some will not. Some is appropriate; some is not. Being able to recognize which is which, and what to do with what you got, are valuable skills. This is one aspect to trusting yourself: be willing to evaluate the quality of the feedback you receive. The feedback you get reveals how someone responded, which is a combination of their own issues and the issues present in the draft that you submit.

Central to using any feedback is to distance yourself from your work, and to distance your work from their feedback. You want to respond as objectively and analytically as possible. At the very least, you don’t want to let an emotional response of anger or dismay lead you into imprudent action. If the responses you got are unpleasant, try not to focus on how you’ve been misunderstood, instead focus on the question of how to change your paper so that you get better responses in the future.

The first level of distancing is to remember that your project is a work in progress, and flaws in the project are not reflections of your ability, but merely roughnesses in the project. There is a reason editors exist, after all: even the best writers benefit from help. If the work you have created has problems or is rough, you can fix it or get it fixed!

The second level of distancing is to remember that audience response is not just a product of the work but also of the audience. Great works have been rejected by audiences. Sometimes rejection is due to the blindness of the reviewer, not the failure of the creator. There are any number of failures of an audience, many of which can be alleviated by a good cover letter [a subject discussed in the book’s preceding section]. But regardless of the cover letter you might have sent, the feedback you get might be of poor quality due to the reader. Maybe they were busy, maybe distracted, maybe grumpy or ill. Regardless of who made the feedback, you can always ask: “Is this feedback suitable to the work? Does this feedback address important issues?” Trust yourself to judge the feedback you get. Not all feedback will be useful, and if you don’t get in the habit of testing the worth of comments, you will be at the mercy of bad feedback.

People make mistakes; some feedback is just plain wrong. You have to be willing to challenge obvious errors. Other times, the feedback isn’t wrong, but it is off-base. I worked with a writer who was trying to feel out the main theme of her dissertation when she offered a first version of a chapter draft to her advisor. The feedback that she got was a few comments on sentence structure, which led her to focus her attention on sentences of that sort, which led to her spending a couple of frustrating days trying to rewrite a draft only to discover that she was still faced with the same concerns of trying to find her story. A more confident writer might have looked at the same feedback and said “sure, but that’s not my concern now.” And in such a case, a writer might decide to make a more specific request for feedback, saying something like, “Yes, I appreciate your suggestions about the sentence structure. Thank you. I was also wondering about these issues, . . . and I had questions about . . .” Responding to feedback gives you an opportunity to please your professors or reviewers: you say to them, “See how these changes incorporate the suggestions and corrections you have made?”

Learn to evaluate the feedback you receive. Be willing to challenge it, and also be willing to learn from it. If you can sort the good feedback from the bad, you’ll be in a better position to improve your own writing.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Feedback loops: book excerpt

I had an opportunity to post an excerpt of my book on the Textbook and Academic Authors Association blog (, and I'm reposting it here because I can (formatting altered).

A good writing practice is the foundation of good writing. A good practice is built on regular action, and depends on the ideas or perspectives that lead to effective action. When faced with a large writing project, it is important to look at the relationship between your work practice and your emotions. Today’s actions influence tomorrow’s approach to the project, and work today can make it easier to work tomorrow.

The following is a slightly edited excerpt from my book, Getting the Best of Your Dissertation: Practical Perspectives for Effective Research:
The Downward Spiral and the Upward Spiral

The projects upon which we work have emotional impact: when things go well, we feel good; when things go poorly, we feel bad. In working on an extended project, this emotional dynamic can be crucial, especially with respect to self-reinforcing patterns of feedback.

It’s pretty easy to get stuck in a downward emotional spiral. If something goes wrong and we miss a goal, then we feel bad. And, feeling bad, it can be hard to get started on work, which impedes progress. Each day that passes without making good progress contributes to the sense that we are stuck and to doubts as to whether have what it takes to finish. Further, each day that we don’t make progress is another day that we return to the same ideas—and so instead of facing fresh ideas and fresh problems, we keep coming back to the same thing, which contributes to a sense of drudgery and frustration. And with each passing day of frustration, the emotional distress and sense of difficulty can increase.

On the other hand, it’s possible to initiate an upward spiral. If we get a piece of work done, we often feel good at having made progress, and this progress boosts our confidence to take the next step, which makes that next step easier, thus boosting our progress further, thereby reinforcing our confidence. The more momentum we have on an upward spiral, the easier it is to keep moving past some non-research interruption, or past some research-related difficulty. And, the more progress we make, the more we are working with fresh ideas. If we have been making progress and feeling good about it, and if our interest is high because we are engaged with fresh ideas, then we are more likely to want to get back to work after being interrupted. And if we’ve been working regularly and making progress, when we discover some error in our previous work, it feels less important, because of our general experience of making progress.

It’s easy to get into the downward spiral—after all, it doesn’t take much energy to do no work. There are, however, costs to not making progress. The most immediate cost is the emotional burden of not making progress. But in the long run, financial costs and interpersonal costs also become significant. Financially there are fees to paid, as well as loss of potential income. Interpersonally, lack of progress can strain relationships with professors, colleagues, family, and friends. The downward spiral is easy to start, but the long-term costs are high. The upward spiral is harder to start and keep going. It requires constant effort to keep making progress. But progress has its rewards, so although the upward spiral has a high cost of entry, the return on the investment is high enough that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Aim for Brevity

I had an opportunity to post an excerpt of my book on the Textbook and Academic Authors Association blog (, and I'm reposting it here because I can (formatting slightly altered).
A good writing practice is the foundation of good writing. A good practice is built on regular action, and depends on the ideas or perspectives that lead to effective action. When planning a writing project, one effective idea is to aim for brevity: keep your work short.

The following is a slightly edited excerpt from my book, Getting the Best of Your Dissertation: Practical Perspectives for Effective Research:

Aim for Brevity

Pragmatically speaking, it’s usually less work to write a shorter draft. I suggest aiming your drafts—especially early drafts—at a fraction of the expected total. There are five additional reasons to keep your draft targets short:
  1. If you write a short draft and it’s accepted, then you have moved more quickly toward completion.
  2. It’s typically much easier to add material to a short draft than it is to remove material from a draft that is too long. When adding, what is needed is to find a place to insert the material, which can often be done without significant revisions to the rest of the draft. When removing material, however, it may be necessary to rewrite large portions of the work in order to remove material that is intertwined with the larger body of the work.
  3. In my experience, it is much more common to over-shoot a length target than it is to come in under it.
  4. There is greater psychological ease in aiming for a shorter target: it is both easier and less intimidating to work on a shorter paper.
  5. It’s better to be brief and leave your reader wanting more than to overwhelm your reader with material. If nothing else, a short work gives your reader fewer opportunities to find that you have made a mistake. In general, the absence of some specific issue from a well focused work is less likely to cause a reader to doubt your abilities than an overabundance of material that is only tangentially significant.
More could be said, but an argument in favor of brevity should be short!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

If You're Stuck, Write About It

I had an opportunity to post an excerpt of my book on the Textbook and Academic Authors Association blog (, and I'm reposting it here because I can (formatting slightly altered).
A good writing practice is the foundation of good writing. A good practice is built on regular action, and depends on the ideas or perspectives that lead to effective action. When faced with a large writing project, it is important to keep working and to keep writing when stuck. The more regular the practice, the more effective it will be. One way to keep writing is to have something to write about when you’re stuck. The following is a slightly edited excerpt from my book, Getting the Best of Your Dissertation: Practical Perspectives for Effective Research:

If you’re stuck, write about it

If you’re ever wondering what to do next, and this uncertainty is keeping you from making progress, write about it. Write down what you’re thinking about. Write down the problems you face. Write down things that you could do. Write about what you do want to do, and why. Write about what you don’t want to do, and why. If you’re having conceptual difficulties in your work, practice writing them down.

Some of the questions you could address:

  • What are you stuck on?
  • What is the main issue?
  • What is one specific problem you’re faced with?
  • What are possible approaches to that problem?

These questions can be applied in almost any situation. Can’t decide which book or article to read? Write about the works that you’re considering—what’s good about them? What’s bad? What parts of it agree with the work you’ve already done? If you do this, you’ll have a written record of the book that you may be able to use later, but more importantly it will help you focus your attention on possible next steps with respect to that work.

When you’re stuck, writing about your “stuckness” is a warmup practice: it helps you find ideas and get moving without any of the pressure to get things right. The point is not to create something that you share with others, so don’t worry about its quality or what others would think of it. Use it to tease out different possibilities and find useful steps that could move your dissertation forward. Such writing has the added benefit of practicing writing and helping you develop your writing skill.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Sweet New Reviews of My Book

To my great satisfaction, my book (Getting the Best of Your Dissertation) was read and appreciated by a professor who liked it so much she wrote me a review both on goodreads and on amazon.

I'm putting the two texts here, because I like seeing them together, and realistically, after working as hard and as long as I did on this book, it's really pleasing to read a few compliments on my efforts.

Here's one:
As an advisor to many doctoral students past and present, I am delighted that Dave Harris wrote this invaluable book! It provided immensely helpful strategies for thinking well about one's dissertation, and living well during the process of researching and writing it.

And here's the other:
As a professor at a research university, I'm always on the lookout for books that could help the graduate students I mentor-- and this one is uniquely helpful. The philosophical, psychological, and project-strategy aspects of dissertation-writing on which this book centers are essential, but are rarely addressed in other guides to dissertation-writing. I hope all the masters and doctoral students I mentor will read this book because doing so will not only greatly improve their theses/dissertations, but will also save me many hours of advising. *Getting the Best of Your Dissertation* will be immensely helpful for graduate students in every discipline and field of study! After reading the book, I was delighted to learn that Dave Harris also offers dissertation coaching and editing services. See thoughtclearing (dot) com

I couldn't ask for better than that. I mean there's even a plug for my business and mention of my website. Thank you, Professor Foot! And here's a link to my book: Getting the Best of Your Dissertation

Friday, March 4, 2016


There is a famous joke about Carnegie Hall:
A tourist, seeing a man carrying a violin case, asks "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The musician answers "Practice, practice."

In the case of Carnegie Hall, of course, there is a double meaning of "how do you get to…", because Carnegie Hall is both a literal location and a figurative goal.  With a book, dissertation, or other writing project, there is no concrete location at which you need to arrive, so no one would ask "how do you get to your book?"  But if the question is about the figurative goal--"how do you get your book to completion"--then the answer is the same: "Practice."

On on the Goodreads site, there are some standard questions that they ask of authors who are creating an author page; the questions are to help authors promote themselves.  One of them is "How do you deal with writer's block?" Another is "What's your advice for aspiring writers?"  My answer to both questions is: "Practice."  And there's a third question--"How do you get inspired to write?"--for which a partial answer is practice.

Practice isn't an answer for everything, but it's an answer for a lot of things that ail the writer.

Practice--the right kind of practice--is my best answer for how to deal with writing block (though "writing block" is a terribly general description of a wide range of problems that all manifest with the same basic symptom--not writing, and not being able to write).  The right kind of practices can help a writer become more comfortable in the writing process, which can alleviate many of the anxieties that can interfere with writing.  And, as I suggested above, practice can help in finding inspiration, which is another cause of not writing/experiencing writing block.

Practice can help me find inspiration. Or at least it can help me manifest inspiration.  For me, there is no lack of material to write about--I may lack confidence in what I can say about that material, but I have plenty to say.  Many writers with whom I have worked have struggled with having too much to say: what they perceive as not having anything to write about often turns out to be related to having so many different things to say that they're blocked trying to choose among the many ideas. As I write this, I realize that I have a lot to say about what "inspiration" means--is it finding an idea? Or is it finding motivation? Or both? Or are both intertwined? One serendipitous outcome of my practice of writing this blog post is that I realize I have material and purpose--inspiration, if you will--to write a blog post about inspiration.

Given that I find practice useful both for finding inspiration and for dealing with writing block, it should hardly be surprising that "practice" would be the main recommendation that I would give aspiring writers.  Which winds back to the musician and Carnegie Hall: the accomplished musician knows that the way to become an accomplished musician is to practice. And, to the extent that I am an accomplished writer, I know that the best way to become an accomplished writer is to practice.

NB: Some people have more talent than others, or at least, some people reach a given level of accomplishment more quickly and easily than others. And it can be really frustrating for a struggling writer to see someone else's success. But if you feel like you have a good reason for a writing project, you shouldn't give up on it because someone else learns writing more easily. The fact that you're struggling now, doesn't mean that you'll never improve (though writing is always challenging!). You get better with practice, and some ability as a writer may not manifest immediately.  Anecdotal evidence of what I speak: my sister was, in school--through high school and likely college--much the better writer. She may still be a better writer in her own way, but I'm the one who has written and published a book, and co-written another published book. I may have needed more practice than she did, and she may well have had more talent than I, but that doesn't mean that my accomplishments can't stand on their own. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

One of my former clients became a dissertation coach

As part of promotion of his/her own work, he/she wrote about hiring a dissertation coach, and he/she said some lovely things about me, that I want to repeat, for my own sake.

Finally, I found the right coach. From the outset, I told him “I just want to get this done.” He was compassionate and understood my position, but also said that he would only agree to work with me if the focus was on quality, not only getting it done. I knew I had found my coach. Our work together was brilliant. He truly listened to every word I said and respected my ideas and me as a person. Quickly, I found my heart stop racing every time I heard the clicking of my laptop when I unlocked it to work. The goals that he helped me to identify during our meetings were realistic and obtainable. I did not feel ridiculous or off track in my thoughts. His work with me not only helped me to feel unstuck, it helped me to feel focused, confident, and assured that if I continued to be persistent, I would make it through this process to graduation. His coaching not only helped me with my Dissertation, but it has helped me as a scholar to be confident in my research and work which has contributed greatly to my success. The money I paid for his assistance was worth its weight in Gold.

As a rule I maintain confidentiality for clients--not everyone who has a dissertation coach wants to talk about it--and I requested but didn't get permission to link to my former client's website or use his/her name.
There's a slight irony, I think, in that I would be happy to promote my former client.  What I do and what he/she does are not identical.  There are definitely areas where my former client is probably a better resource. I'm inclined to believe that there are also areas where I'm a better resource. In any event, I didn't want to forget that these nice things were said about me, so I'm posting this here, in addition to keeping a file on my computer.