Don’t fear the feedback!: how to handle edits as a writer

I’ve never been particularly good at handling criticism, particularly towards my writing. This isn’t a great attitude when you’re a postgraduate researcher and what you do is write.

Over the past three years, my writing has been subjected to scrutiny by peers, supervisors, colleagues and journal editors. With every piece of feedback I have been growing increasingly insecure about my writing, opening edited documents with anxiety and trepidation. Or rather, I had been; my recent fellowship at POST completely transformed my attitudes both towards my writing and towards the feedback of others.

What I didn’t know when I embarked upon the POST fellowship was that it would also turn out to be the writing equivalent of an SAS training programme. So, sparing you the pain (although more later on good pain) I’m going to share three insights I gained into how to handle feedback on your writing.

Insight #1: an edit is like a massage

Pretty much from the get-go I was submitting drafts to ‘Officer X’ (my supervisor) on a weekly, if not daily, basis. When the first one came back all I saw was a sea of red tracked changes and my immediate response was to panic and feel gutted. Then I read her changes and, unsurprisingly, they were good: it sounded better and she’d made it way shorter. Alongside this I also had ‘Agent Z’ (a friend trained in web-writing) editing a couple of my blogposts, giving me feedback and explaining why he’d done what he had. He too had the knack of making it better and shorter. At first, his edits had a similar deflating effect on me.

With time, though, and as the edits continued to come in, my fear diminished and I started looking forward to them. And that’s because getting an edit is like getting a massage…

Imagine you’ve never had a massage before, you rock up not quite knowing what to expect, but since you feel more or less physically fine, you’re sure it’s going to be an enjoyable experience. You get into position and the massage starts. It’s all going well, then suddenly – OWW – pain! Operative S has come across a knot in your back that you didn’t know you had, and now they’re trying to sort it out – and it hurts! Afterwards, though, when it’s over, you realise your body feels better. You get the picture? If there’s a bit of pain in an edit, the outcome is a better piece of writing. So it’s good pain!

Insight #2: an edit is like a free personal training session

There came a point a couple of weeks into my fellowship when I realised that not only were Officer X and Agent Z’s edits making my writing better, but the tracked changes on my writing meant I could see exactly what my writing needed to improve. None of this generic advice! I also gave myself an attitude check and got off the defensive: no, they weren’t ‘criticising me’ because they wanted to destroy me (bit dramatic, perhaps); they were giving me constructive criticism because they wanted to help me improve…just like a personal trainer.

Officer X and Agent Z taught me to be ruthless in cutting out the unnecessary. Officer X taught me to reword sentences from the passive voice to the active voice. For example, ‘Samples of speech are analysed…’ becomes ‘Experts phoneticians analyse samples of speech…’: when you pin down who the agents are in a sentence (in this case, the ‘expert phoneticians’), you pack more punch. And finally, Agent Z taught me that the beginnings and ends of sentences are the most important bits. I’ve tried to apply that in this post; thinking especially about my subheadings.

Insight #3: edits on a document do not mean you’re wrong and they’re right

Usually when you send something for review it’s to one or two people. I don’t know about you, but when I’ve done that in the past I’ve sort of felt that the edits that come back must be right – otherwise they wouldn’t have said anything in the first place.

I’ve got empirical evidence to suggest the contrary.

Like all POST notes, my briefing went through intense SAS-style review. As well as reviews and edits from Officer X, it got reviewed by 5 of Officer X’s comrades (colleagues) and 25 external contributors. And here’s the thing:

Their comments and edits were NOT unanimous.

That’s right: different reviewers picked up on different things, which meant that where one person had deemed something in need of editing, another had deemed it perfectly fine. Of course, sometimes several people made the same point – and that was a pretty good indication that change was needed. But there was one instance where three different reviewers all wanted to insert a word in one particular place; however, they all proposed a different word! What do you do with that?

Well, you draw this conclusion: just because someone has made a suggestion, it doesn’t mean it’s right. The chances are it will be insightful and helpful, but don’t just assume that they are ‘right’ and you were ‘wrong’.

So, to conclude, next time you get some edited work back, try to:

  • see the edits like a massage: the pain is good and its purpose is to make you better!
  • feel jammy about the fact that it’s basically a free personal training session – lucky you!
  • remember that it’s not always a case of the editor being right and you being wrong.