January’s Hack: Ten Strategies to Solicit Better Writing Feedback
by Erika Martin, PhD, MPH
Surviving your dissertation and the job market requires a secret sauce of excellent research, strong work ethic, and effective project management. Dissertation advisers typically focus on the first two ingredients. However, project management skills are equally important, and not just for MBA, MPA, MHA, and other terminal degree students who are training for managerial positions. In this series, we will work together to demystify the soft skills required to be a successful PhD student. My advice blends things I have learned from mentoring doctoral students as a course instructor, adviser, and PhD Director; and reflections on what helped me in my own PhD program and where I went disastrously wrong.
In a painfully realistic PhD Comic series, a student receives his edited paper from his adviser whose “few tweaks” were a rewritten paper with his professor explaining, “it’s easier to rewrite it than to point out all the things you do wrong.” In discussing specific feedback, his adviser’s comments include using too many sentences, poor word choices, bad punctuation, and ugly figures. The professor assures him that he will not receive any edits or comments on his dissertation because at that point he will not care.
The PhD Comics exaggerate scenarios for comic effect, so (hopefully) most advising relationships are not this brutal. Yet the experience of receiving unconstructive or nonexistent writing feedback is universal. This can result in delayed dissertation writing progress or, at worse, complete writer’s block.
Fortunately, you can take steps to reverse this feedback cycle. Below are ten strategies that you can implement to improve feedback at different writing stages.
Ten Strategies to Improve Feedback on Your Writing
#1: Understand that scientific writing requires telling a story, not simply answering your research question. Good research starts with literature reviews to find important gaps, craft clear research questions, generate testable hypotheses, identify relevant data, and develop strong analytic plans. After you have results, you need to tell a story with your data to help readers understand your key findings and their relevance to the field. Graduate coursework prepares you for conducting research, but not for research storytelling. Authors must develop introductions that motivate their research questions, gently guide readers through the results (eg, descriptive and bivariate statistics, multivariate models, and interpretation of effect sizes), and explain why their findings matter. Learning the art of research storytelling is a process and good places to start are JPHMP Direct’s Writing in Boxes module and this article on “ten simple rules for structuring papers.”
#2: Acknowledge that writing feedback is an iterative and fluid process. I frequently see students create draft timelines that list specific dates for deliverables (eg, draft dissertation chapters) and “committee approval” milestones in the subsequent month. Unfortunately, you cannot model academic writing as a survival curve with clear time-to-acceptance outcomes. Following Tip #1, there are multiple stages to scientific writing: completing your analyses, refining your tables and figures to tell a clear data story, writing a preliminary draft to put ideas on paper, and refining the narrative to clarify your manuscript’s contribution and relevance. Sometimes these later stages require updating the framing of your introduction, alternative discussion points, or even new exhibits that require additional analysis.
#3: Be specific about your desired feedback. Following Tips #1 and #2, your writing will progress in stages with substantial effort devoted to developing a clear narrative to frame your study and tell a story about your findings. Help your mentors give you the advice you need at your current stage by explaining where you are in the writing process, and the specific areas where you want feedback. Are you seeking input on whether your research question is clear? Do you want guidance on identifying your study contributions? Are you concerned about the clarity of your data story for a general audience? Are you tailoring your manuscript to a specific journal? Providing this background helps your committee members be more efficient in reviewing your work and providing comments, and increases the likelihood of getting the feedback you need at that moment.
#4: Send smaller packets of materials for review. If you want rapid and tailored feedback, send smaller packets of materials. Don’t send a 100-page literature review or prospectus after not talking to your committee for several months. That is frustrating for advisers, who need to get up to speed on what you have been doing. They will need to block off a substantial amount of focused time to review your extensive materials, which will delay the turnaround time to provide comments. In turn, you will be frustrated as you wait longer for feedback and their feedback may not be what you need at that time. You will likely be more successful at receiving quick feedback on small drafts, such as 2-page briefs that summarize your main argument, short concept sheets that summarize your planned study, or abstracts and accompanying tables. It is particularly helpful to send these small packets in the early stages of your writing when you are seeking feedback on high-level items (eg, the overall narrative, making the results clear for a general audience, developing a “hook”). You can then incorporate that feedback into subsequent drafts.
#5: Have a process-oriented conversation with your mentors about preferred revision strategies. While the first four tips should work for most advising relationships, faculty advisers and dissertation committees have different preferences and expectations for turnaround times on drafts, the number of drafts they are willing to review, what types of materials you should send, et cetera. Early in your writing process, schedule a meeting with your adviser to discuss the writing and revisions process to ensure you have clear expectations and a solid strategy. See my earlier post on how to take control of your mentoring meetings.
#6: Solicit feedback early and at different writing stages… but not until you have finished proofreading. Although “early and often” is a good strategy to get feedback at different stages, that doesn’t mean that you should send messy products. Faculty want to help you learn the art of scientific writing and how to be successful in getting your work published. Providing high-level comments on telling stories with your data, drawing policy and practice implications, and setting up the narrative is an enjoyable part of mentoring students. However, faculty get frustrated when they devote their mentoring time to basic readability issues such as grammar, organizing ideas into different paragraphs, and writing clear sentences. Proofread all materials that you send to your mentors. Ask peers to review your drafts for readability. If you receive feedback from your committee that your writing is unclear, enlist more peer reviewers or hire a professional editor to review drafts before you send them to your committee.
#7: Solicit feedback from different audiences, including your peers. Your professors will likely provide the most feedback on how to tailor your writing to improve its likelihood of publication. However, your peers can be useful sounding boards for the overall logic of your arguments, the clarity of your writing, and your presentation of results. Practitioners can help you identify implications for policy and practice. Seek opportunities to present your work at research seminars in your department, across campus, and to practitioners. The most invaluable suggestions for my introduction and discussions sections are frequently from colleagues outside my immediate field. Organize a peer writing group to stay motivated with writing and to receive ongoing feedback.
#8: Provide writing feedback to others. It may seem counterintuitive to give feedback to others as a writing strategy, when you are currently learning the craft of writing. If you have completed your coursework and made it to candidacy, you are qualified to read scientific literature and reflect on whether ideas makes sense. Grading student papers has made me a better writer because I can recognize patterns that yield unclear arguments. Helping students write outlines, develop topic sentences, rearrange paragraphs, and define key terms for general audiences has made me more cognizant of how I present my own ideas. Brainstorming how to structure your peers’ manuscripts in a way that makes sense for their audiences allows you to practice argumentation.
#9: Stagger your writing tasks so you can make progress while waiting for feedback. Find ways to continue your momentum after you submit drafts to your professors and await their comments. For example, you can work use that time to create appendices, format tables and figures, run additional sensitivity analyses, and organize your project documentation. In my experience, many students feel they need to complete all of these tasks prior to submitting any deliverables to their committee for review. While these activities are important, they are not crucial to having your adviser and committee review your work. You can save time by doing these while waiting for comments. This is also a good time to start tackling other parts of your dissertation, job application packet, or other items on your to-do list.
#10: Be organized like a ninja. A special thanks to our doctoral student Wenhui Feng for introducing me to this phrase! I include this tip because strong organization is required to implement the other nine tips. Map out your staggered writing tasks with a clear timeline, keep a log of what products are under review, and document what feedback you have received and how you have incorporated comments. I am currently working on a large evaluation study where our team’s lengthy report has so many moving pieces that we created an Excel-based document tracking log to note the status of different draft sections and who has provided comments. While your own manuscripts may not warrant such a detailed management tool, you will want to keep track of your mentors’ comments and your responses.
Wrapping Up Today’s PhD Hack
Improving the feedback you receive on your writing starts with a mind shift about how you view the writing process. If you feel overwhelmed with writing, it can be daunting to implement these additional strategies. Yet with a little practice, these strategies are very doable and you will improve your writing quality and productivity as you get better feedback. Happy writing!
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Erika Martin, PhD, MPH, is Associate Professor and PhD Director at Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany-SUNY. As an applied health policy researcher, she uses mixed methods to evaluate issues related to the allocation of scarce public health resources, the adoption and impact of public health policies, with a focus on domestic HIV and related syndemics. She also studies ways to improve the sustainability and impact of open data platforms. Articles she’s written have appeared in an array of leading health and public policy journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, Health Affairs, American Journal of Public Health, Public Administration Review, and Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.