On Responding to Writing Criticism
“I don’t actually want to discuss it. I’m not actually hoping for constructive criticism. Just ignore the spelling mistakes, discount the preachy and rambly parts and just tell me how it’s borderline genius.” Iain Reid, National Post
I put myself in this same double-bind whenever I receive criticism about my academic research and writing. I know I need substantive feedback, but I want (only want) encouragement, affirmation, and approval. These are hard to find in higher education. After a certain point profs stop encouraging their students to succeed because they have to be sure the student can independently swim in the academy’s hostile waters.
I have had to find my way through the writer’s block that is part of almost every graduate student’s experience. I lost confidence in my ability to write and to think critically. I knew that the draft I was working on had problems, but how could I, a bad writer, make the necessary improvements?
Finding my way back to writing started with being deliberately kind to myself. As corny as it sounds, I needed to fill my head with positive and encouraging messages. I stopped beating myself up when I realized that I would never say to a colleague the kinds of things I was saying to myself.
Second, I started focusing on bigger issues like the purpose of each paragraph and coherence from one paragraph to the next. I spent too much energy dealing with sentence level problems; those errors caught the attention of editors but didn’t make a significant impact on the overall content.
Third, I detached myself from my writing. I used to make the writing process way more personal than it needs to be; I interpreted critiques of my writing as judgements about me. Even though I would never publicly admit it, I used my writing to build up my confidence, but that meant revisions were also directed at me. I hoped that my sense of confidence would increase by making significant accomplishments. But if my past successes hadn’t improved my confidence as a researcher and writer, why would things be any different this time? I changed and focused on building my sense of self-worth on real things, like relationships and being kind to myself and others.
Finally, I started using egg timers to structure my work. I usually start writing, editing, or revising with my timer set to about 25 minutes (this method is loosely based on the Pomodoro Technique). I tell myself that I don’t have to finish the task, I just have to focus and get started during that short period. Sometimes I take a break when the buzzer tells me my time is up. Other times I have found my place in the text within the span of those few minutes and I’m able to continue working for another hour or two. I’m grateful for this little trick that helps me engage the text without overwhelming myself by the magnitude of my task.
Academic writing is almost always permeated by criticism from professors, peers, and ourselves. I know I’m not the only academic writer who has been paralyzed by fears and anxieties of how our audiences (might) respond. Hopefully, some of what I’ve learned may help you overcome a hurdle in your own writing.
Betsy Moss is a PhD candidate in art history. When not teaching medieval art, she can be found working on her thesis about Byzantine icons from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. She enjoys canoeing, biking, and spending time with her husband and son who will start preschool in July.