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.