Ellie Mackin is a third year PhD student in Classics at King’s College London, and is working through Wendy Belcher’s ‘Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks’ while attempting to finish her thesis.
It’s already week nine. That means there are only three more weeks to go before my article will be ready for submission, and sent off into the big, wide world to fend for itself against peer review. So, I was pleased when this week was all about getting and giving feedback.
I’m not the best at giving feedback, I think. I am highly critical of my own work but I tend to give others the benefit of the doubt (perhaps I am not a peer reviewer in the making!). Because of this lack of feedback-knowhow on my own part I was pleased that Belcher started this chapter by talking about what makes good feedback and how to give good, constructive feedback. Of course, being a PhD student I am no stranger to receiving feedback, but the process of giving feedback is somewhat alien.
The first point that Belcher makes is one that I found very surprising at first, but the more I have thought about it the more it make sense: don’t obsess over the bibliography. Sure, you can recommend texts that might provide additional proof, or suggest something that a peer reviewer would notice is missing, but don’t go overboard on it. As Belcher points out: ‘An article is not meant to be exhaustive.’ I think that’s part of the trouble switching from thesis to article writing. One is clearly meant to be exhaustive and there is an element of ‘look how much I have read!’ to the thesis that just isn’t needed (or appropriate) for an article. Her other points (don’t approach the article as a writer trying to fix it, and don’t judge the work) are clear and make a lot of sense.
Finally, this section ends with a few paragraphs on what you should be doing when giving feedback, and I found this to be the most useful, even though it goes a bit over the ground of ‘positive-sandwich’ but goes on to some very good stuff: be specific! (how often have we all got back essays that just have a tick or cross, ‘good’ or ‘needs work’ or some other vague comment and it doesn’t help you very much! I think I am particularly prone to doing this!). The most useful part of this section was the comment that you should focus on telling the other author what you understood and didn’t, what the main argument you took away was – all of this helps the author to make sure they are clearly getting across what it is that they are trying to say. Tied in to this is to focus on the bigger picture – view the article as a whole, rather than looking right down at the micro-detail.
After this, the chapter started on what to do when you are getting feedback on your own work: ask, be specific about what you want, try to ignore the emotion in the reviewer’s words, and listen to what they have to say (I am particularly bad at these final two points, both in terms of writing and in life in general!).
So, I shared my article with a good friend and scholar from Australia, and did as Belcher suggested and gave detailed instructions on what I wanted to get out of the experience, based on Belcher’s own feeback form. My instructions included: ‘please write a short abstract for this article, so I can see what you took away at the main argument,’ and ‘please comment on the flow of the article’ which is important to me because my article covers two separate topics for the majority of the length, and then brings them both together in the conclusion, so I wanted to make sure that this worked. I also gave my friend a copy of the pages with Belcher instructions, which include giving instructions of the types of feedback, but also how to go about reading the article: once without a pen, looking at the whole, on the second read you tick or mark the good parts, third time you circle the unclear parts, the you write a summary of what you think the article is about. Then you go over the marks (good and bad) with the author. Although Belcher suggests exchanging articles, we didn’t – she didn’t have anything ready to review at this stage, and we also did it all over email (which I think worked just as well, and now I have a written record of what she has said, so that’s a bonus for me).
I have only just got the feedback back from her, so I haven’t had a chance to really go through it. Her summary points out what my main point is, but I think I will need to clarify some of my sub-points which she seemed a bit confused about. Overall, the first look at the feedback (with marks and circles done on track-changes) seems to indicate that my idea is clear but sometimes my delivery is not as clear as it could be. There were a few passages that I wasn’t surprised to see big red marks around.
I’m going to go through this feedback in much more detail and make some revision to my article based on them.