Manuscript March: Interpreting Feedback on Your Writing

Remember those glorious halcyon schooldays, when teachers rewarded your written work with certificates and gold stars? Ah, I miss those days.

Postgraduate students, as you may have noticed, don’t get gold stars. We get critiqued.

This makes quite a bit of sense. Postgraduate research is meant to equip us to work independently. We are supposed to graduate with a chunk of writing under our belt, a silly hat on our head, and a trained tendency to question everything we put to paper. It’s not that we’re supposed to be nervous wrecks, exactly – it’s just that as self-questioners, we have the ability to critique our own writing. The more our work is critiqued by others, the more we’ll develop the ability to independently recognise the wobbly parts in our writing, and the stronger our work will become.

But none of this builds confidence. In fact, having your writing critiqued can be quite uncomfortable and sometimes borderline soul-crushing. Not to mention confusing – when your ideas are critiqued, you can point to a position on the page and identify what is being targeted. But when your writing is critiqued, it’s harder to pinpoint what to change. (My writing is not concise enough? It could be tighter? OK, so how do I fix that?)

After several years of receiving feedback, I’ve figured out a few ways to deal with it.


Don’t mistake your supervisor’s feedback for your personal worth as a writer.

Supervisors are our most regular and authoritative readers, and their feedback can hold a lot of sway in our minds. For instance, my Master’s supervisor gave very positive feedback. It was, I’d say, 95% positive and 5% constructively critical. I felt unstoppable as a writer. I wasn’t – I just had a kind supervisor.

My doctoral supervisor is quite the opposite. His feedback is 95% critical (commenting on clumsy phrasings, grammatical errors, repetitive language, and so on). Occasionally he’ll throw me a “nice” on a sentence, but that’s about as much of a confidence boost as I get. There have been times when I’ve felt totally useless as a writer. I’m not – I just have a critical supervisor.

There are pros and cons to both these forms of feedback (I was more carefree and wrote faster during my Masters, but I’ve learned a lot more and refined my writing during my doctorate). Ultimately, your supervisor’s comments are a reflection on their supervision style as much as they are your capability as a writer. Use them, but don’t internalise them.


Ask for specifics.

Feedback is only useful if you understand it. If you get generic comments like “writing doesn’t flow” or “ideas not well integrated,” ask for clarification. Your reviewer should be able to point at specific passages to illustrate their comments – otherwise how are you supposed to proceed?


Be selective about the suggestions you follow.

Whenever I appeared to be in danger of following trends at school, my parents used to say: “if your friends jumped off a cliff, would you follow them?” (I was a very literal child, and had an effusive answer about my decision to jump depending on multiple variables including height of cliff, softness of landing surface, and rewards of succumbing to peer pressure.)

This one is probably a no.

Blindly following every piece of feedback on your writing is no better than jumping off a cliff. Your reviewer might recommend the jump; it might be a very important and safe and reputable jump. But the decision of whether to jump is yours and yours alone.

Corrections to grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so on are probably uncontroversial. But if your reviewer prefers complex sentences and you like to keep them brief, then you’re allowed to disagree on that. If you like to build to your main point, but your reviewer would prefer to read your point before its rationalisation, then that’s something to consider – but it’s a matter of taste.

Correct English is important, but some aspects of writing come down to personal preference. The most important thing is to believe in the choices you make. You will have to defend your choices – if you’re a doctoral student, you will defend them formally in your oral exam. Think about what you can defend. If a reviewer suggests something that you wouldn’t feel comfortable defending, then discussing it might help. But ultimately, it’s your thesis and your name will be on the cover. You have the option to respectfully debate or decline any suggestions. After all, an academic has to be able to think and write for him or herself.


Diversify your feedback sources.

Your supervisor has a specific set of skills. Presumably they are relevant skills for dealing with your subject matter – that’s why they are supervising you. But they may not be able to advise on all aspects of your writing. It pays to diversify your pool of reviewers.

I have run my work past the following people, in addition to my supervisor:

  • My fellow postgraduate students. Are familiar with the writing conventions in my field and can advise accordingly. Good for discussing the work casually but with understanding.
  • My husband. Will show interest and give praise due to spousal obligation.
  • My mum. Claims not to understand thesis but actually does grasp well-written parts. Facial expressions will reveal which parts are clear and which are full of meaningless waffle.
  • My stuffed animals. Do not provide particularly useful feedback, but will listen attentively as I read aloud and allow me to hear the rhythm of my own writing.
Thanks, Feedback Frog!


Last but not least: celebrate feedback.

It takes a lot of work to get your writing to a stage where it can be reviewed, and a lot of bravery to show it. Slap your own hand in an awkward self-high-five. Yeah!

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

5 thoughts on “Manuscript March: Interpreting Feedback on Your Writing

  1. I like your feedback sources, Anaise. My mum just shakes her head when she looks at the books I read. I’d have better luck with my cat.

  2. Great suggestions Anaise. I particularly like the recommendation to get varied feedback. Don’t forget that your supervisor may welcome guidance on the type of feedback they give you, since sometimes you may prefer detailed suggestions, whereas on other occasions you may wish to receive conceptual/ broader scale feedback.

  3. This, like all your writing is brilliant Anaise (there you go, feedback from a PhD student peer!) I like all your suggestions – but it’s interesting you don’t mention the second supervisor. Their feedback is also critical I think and often lends a new and fresh perspective…the other thing I’ve found helpful is to write something, even if it’s small, for publication. It’s a confidence boost as much as anything else.

    1. Good points, Emma. I don’t have a second supervisor, but I can see how two sets of supervisor feedback on a piece of writing could be very useful – especially if they had sufficiently different backgrounds / perspectives to balance one another’s strengths.

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