Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bracing for Feedback

A writer wrote to me:
> Ok, I'm tired and I'm probably being a little reckless here, but I ended
> up finishing some changes to ch3. Finished enough, that is. I cut out
> the entire section on the _______. It was a tough decision
> to do, but the chapter had already exceeded 31 pages...
> I went ahead and sent ch1 & ch3 to My chair.

I wrote back:

Hi Writer,

congratulations on sending off drafts!
Perhaps you were a little reckless, but we need to be able to take risks. There's no certainty in life.

What you have done is done. There is any range of possible outcomes. The thing to do now is to make plans for the future. Focus on what you can do.

In your case in particular, one set of plans that you may not be making is how to manage feedback. Of course making plans to manage feedback is difficult, because we don't know what the feedback will be. Still, there are things we can do to prepare ourselves. We can consider the range of possible responses and develop general plans depending of the rough outcome.

More importantly, we can step back and look at our work with a critical eye and say "what is a critical reader going to say, and do I think that response is important?" What are the different criticisms, and how can you plan to meet them?

Hypothetical responses:
1. You need to clean up your writing!
response to 1: I'm planning on hiring a proofreader.
2. Your argument is weak (generally).
response to 2: Could you give more detail on what you mean, and what kind of weakness?
3. Your argument is missing XYZ data.
response to 3: could you explain why you think that would further my general purpose of stating ABC?

There are any number of responses, of course, and it would be easy to get lost thinking about negative responses that you might get ("gee, you're stupid", "never talk to me again," or whatever insult), and get emotionally distraught from that process.
But if you think about the response that you would make, that can help defuse the emotion. On the one hand, what kind of response does one make to an insult? On the other, if you have planned a response--like #2 above--that places the onus of explaining the insult on the other person, you can turn the tables on them. Act as if it isn't an insult and ask for further definition and clarification.

Anyway, we've all _got_ to be a little reckless sometimes. Take the chance that the work that we could work on more is going to at least speak to the reader enough that they see the spark that makes it fly.

With your chair, stay on message: For your part, keep in mind the main point of the dissertation, and how it manifests in each piece. And in response to any comment of his, remember you can always say "how does that help me explain my main point? Can you clarify how you see that working?" This response should be practiced and used particularly in the context of any emotionally difficult response.

But most of all: remember to be kind to yourself. And celebrate getting two chapters sent out. No matter what the response, being able to write, wrap up and send off the two chapters (with all the flaws that every writer sees in the work going out), is a matter worthy of recognition and celebration.



1. No guarantees exist. We always take a risk when we put ourselves out there--whether submitting a draft or looking for a job or asking for a date, we might get rejected. But the risk has to be taken because the paralysis is actually worse than the rejecion.
2. any rejection of our effort is evidence helping us refine our effort; if we cannot understand the rejection, it is worth our while to ask for additional clarification (especially in the context of dissertation advisors who have an actual responsibility to provide _useful_ feedback).
3. We can plan our responses to help focus our efforts and our energy during the periods of waiting for feedback. This helps us from being overtaken by anxiety.
$. It's hard to complete a draft! No matter what, that is worthy of acknowledgment--even if you have to go back and rewrite that draft (which is pretty much what an experienced writer expects to do with early drafts any way).

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