Use the norm of reciprocity to get constructive feedback on your work

In popular fiction, authors are often portrayed as isolated and tortured souls, locked away in a garret apartment or in a cabin in the forest, producing their great works without benefit of human companionship. In reality, writing is an extremely social activity, highly dependent upon an individual’s network of family and friends. Peer networks play in a particularly important role in moving writing from solipsistic doodling to prose that others want to read. Let me suggest one way in which social relationships are critical: finding people willing to offer critically constructive feedback on the work.

Boston MFA

MFA Boston

When your draft is completed, how will you know what reception it will receive from the intended readers? When I talk to academic writers about this question, I point out that the most risky action an author can take is to submit to a journal a paper that no one else has yet read. Although it seems incredibly shortsighted, I often talk to people who’ve done exactly that – – they claim that they really couldn’t find anybody they thought would be a good reviewer. Thus, to get feedback on their work, they plunged ahead and sent it out for review.

Why is this risky? For most academic journals, the best outcome of initial review is an invitation to revise and resubmit the paper. Thus, the initial submission is not an attempt to get the paper published as is, but rather to convince the reviewers, and hence the editor, that the paper has enough merit to warrant the journal spending an additional round of reviewing on it. If you submit a paper that has not been evaluated by anyone yet, it is quite likely that it contains so many serious problems as to preclude the likelihood that reviewers and editors will see it as worthy of a revision. So, at the very least, it makes sense to seek feedback from others that will enable you to fix major problems with the paper before submitting it, thus increasing the odds that you will get a chance from the journal to revise the paper.

But who should you turn to for such feedback? I recommend thinking first of strong ties and then expanding beyond them in selecting people whom you will ask for feedback. First, you can turn to your local circle of colleagues and mentors. You might join a writing group with others who seek feedback on their work. With others writing about similar topics, you could organize a workshop at which you present your papers. Second, you can locate potential reviewers by attending conference sessions at which people in your field are presenting their own work. Third, if there are several authors whom you relied heavily upon in your literature review, they are likely candidates for providing feedback.

When I make such suggestions, especially to graduate students and junior faculty, they almost immediately object. Why would these people be interested in helping you out? Providing feedback is a lot of work and it seems unlikely that people you hardly know would voluntarily give up their precious time to spend it on your draft. Even close colleagues and mentors are mentioned as people evidently disinterested in providing timely feedback. (That could be a topic for another blog post!)

Anthropologists and sociologists have given us the answer to why we might expect these people to help: the norm of reciprocity. How does it work? In just about every culture where the phenomenon has been studied, we observe that when somebody does a favor for someone else, the person receiving the favor incurs an obligation to return it. You can use this norm to your advantage, but you must be strategic about it.

Locally, ask a fellow graduate student or junior faculty member if they are working on any projects on which they would like feedback. Do they have any working drafts they can share with you? At a conference session, stick around after the presentations and speak with the scholars from whom you’d like feedback. Again, don’t tell them that you are seeking feedback on your own work, but rather ask them if the paper they presented has been published, and if not, if they would like feedback on it? For scholars you know only through their journal publications, write and tell them that you find their work very interesting and that you are interested in keeping up with cutting edge findings in your field. Ask them if they can send you their working papers and if they’d be interested in receiving feedback.

If the targets of your solicitation respond positively, take the next step. Ask them to send you a digital copy of their work and ask what specific issues they are concerned about; for example, adequate recognition of prior work, arguments supporting proffered hypotheses, and clarity in interpretations of findings. Find out if they are working to any deadlines and in particular, if the paper has already been submitted for review. It’s important to ask about the status of a paper, as there is little point in sending people comments on a paper that is currently in the review process. Whatever you have to say will be overridden by the editor’s requests of the author.

Now we come to a critical component of my recommendation: in your comments, you need to show the person what kind of feedback you would like for your own work. In doing so, you prepare the groundwork for a working relationship with a constructive critic who can give you the help you need.

How do you teach someone else what kind of feedback you would like? Remembering the norm of reciprocity, you need to show them what a competent and constructive review looks like by doing one yourself. Provide higher order rather than lower order feedback. Critique their ideas and concepts, not their spelling and grammar. For example, point out problems with the flow of the argument or with lack of a connection between the literature cited and the inferences drawn.

Technology is our friend in this case. Microsoft Word makes available two excellent writing tools — Insert Comments and Track Changes — one of which you can use in providing feedback and one that you should avoid.

Do use insert comments by marking blocks of text and then writing explanations to the author for why you have marked them, as I noted above. Do not use track changes by inserting your own words into the author’s text. “Track changes” is for co-authors, not commentators. It is not your job to point out spelling mistakes or errors in grammar, unless someone specifically asks you to do so, and even then, you should resist. In short, leave the copy editing to the author or somebody who is paid to do such work. Your job, as a reviewer of their work, is to provide feedback on the substance of their argument. So, aim high.

The norm of reciprocity is so powerful that it will probably not be necessary for you to enter into an agreement, a priori, with the person whose work you are citing. Instead, by following the above steps, you will have prepared the other person for a subsequent request from you, asking them if they’d be so kind as to provide similar feedback for a draft paper of yours. Of course, there is always a risk that you will be turned down, which is why I recommend only commenting on the work of others whose work you genuinely find interesting and is in fields which you know enough to provide useful feedback.

Start small, with your local circle, and then work your way out to others you don’t know personally. You will be astonished at how grateful even well-known authors are to receive constructive feedback on their work. I have met a lot of good friends this way.

In my own work, I am delighted if I can find five or six people to provide the kind of feedback I’ve mentioned above – – feedback on the substance of my arguments. More than that and I’m ecstatic! This past month, I sent a paper to three friends overseas with whom I previously talked about the topic, and I sent it to three other scholars whose work I admired but whom I never met face-to-face. In their cases, I made clear to them why I was seeking their help and advice on whether I had used their work properly. I sent it to several people with a request that they only look at one particular facet of the paper, and ignore the rest, unless they had the time to do more. As a consequence of these solicitations, I believe the paper improved enormously from the early drafts to the latest drafts, and now I am ready to send it on to the formal reviewing process.

Journal reviewers will be anonymous and brutally honest! Better to learn all you can before the paper reaches their desks

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