“This abstract is awful. Just start over.”
“You give bad lectures. You didn’t make sense.”
“This manuscript is a mess. It needs organization.”
Taking criticism is hard. Giving criticism is hard. Giving criticism in ways that can be taken by the listener, is an art form. I don’t claim to be an expert, but one of my job duties is a lot of editing for a lot of different subject matter experts. I’ve noticed a few things about what works and what doesn’t.
Consider the type of feedback that is being asked for. If a colleague asks you to proofread an abstract that is due to a conference in 30 minutes, now is not the time to question their choice of methods, or probably even the organization of the abstract.
Conversely, if you are given an early draft of a document and asked about the organization, but instead you mark up the punctuation and spelling errors, there is a good chance those little errors will still be in the next draft. It’s hard to ask for criticism, and we often are only prepared to accept so much.
As always, in communication, audience matters. You can be more effective by giving the feedback you’ve been asked for. Some of the common types of editing for written documents are:
• Proofreading- simply catches spelling and grammatical errors. This should be the final read through before submission.
• Copyediting- which can help to clarify voice and word choice, but doesn’t usually rearrange a manuscript. This is usually the level of editing one of your colleagues will provide unless you specifically ask for something else.
• Organizational/structural/substantiative editing- may rearrange, reorganize or generally clarify a complete draft. While it can be challenging to reimagine an exisiting document, structural changes can eliminate issues with the flow and logic of a document.
• Developmental- this is the type of feedback that is given to an incomplete draft, or an outline. For a manuscript, now is the time to consider if experiments or figures are missing.
Consider a similar level of depth for criticism when listening to a practice talk. If you aren’t sure what type of feedback is needed, just ask.
Be objective. We think of the role of advisors and mentors as helping to shape the students into the best scientist. This can make it tempting to say things to the student like “You aren’t a good speaker.”
This is terrible for a couple reasons: first, it’s hurtful. Second, it doesn’t give the student anything specific to improve. The best editors I have worked with always frame their critiques in the context of “This will improve the document,” or talk, or even the project. One way to do this is to keep the criticism framed on the object, not the author. This can help the person receiving criticism to feel like you are on the same team, and both working with the same object in mind.
Criticism has a style. Your writing has a style. Your speaking has a style. Your criticism will also have a style. Find a manner that feels comfortable for eliciting the best work out of others. Short and direct is typical and effective.
Some editors have a Socratic style, asking questions that will make the author think hard about their choices. “Is the audience already familiar with these terms?” “Should this research be introduced earlier?” Keep in mind that when written in red pen (or track changes), most little quips tend to be less funny than intended.
Personally, my style is brief but encouraging. I don’t belabor issues, and I like to point out successes. Here are some of my actual comments:
• Update these citations.
• This discussion question is very narrow, consider asking students to bring in additional research on the topic.
• Great activity! Very engaging!
Because I often accompany my in-text comments with a cover letter to my writers, this style allows me to quickly put together a bulleted list of the major points or themes of the criticism. While I often have writers express concern that their document came back with an essay, I find it easy for both of us to determine if the issues have been addressed.
One benefit of having your own editorial voice is that it makes you more confident and efficient when giving feedback, which will come up with increasing regularity as your career advances.
Be specific. When possible, include a workable alternative as part of a rewrite. I’ve certainly gotten back many a document that said “This is confusing.”
As a writer, it’s really hard to know what was confusing about it. Now, I try to include something like, “This was confusing. Did you mean that ’increased funding will improve patient outcomes’?” This either gives the author an alternative they know you will agree with, or highlights what part of the writing was confusing or awkward.
Often, that alternative will expose the likely misinterpretation of the text that the author hadn’t considered. Similarly, pointing out the specific passage that can be moved to bullets, or the particular text that should be moved in a reorganization, will help the author to fully understand your suggestion.
In addition, this can often make the feedback faster to implement, which busy scientists always appreciate.
Don’t pull your punches. Criticism always feels a little bad, but it’s worth if it leads to genuine improvement. This can be a hard line to walk. It takes courage to give good, critical critiques.
I know how it feels to look at a document that is bleeding red from an editor, but once I work through those changes it is a much better document.
Providing brutally honest feedback can also be really hard to do for in-person criticism, like after a practice talk. Remind yourself that it is so much better to get and give criticism when there is still time to deal with it (like after a practice talk).
While critiques aren’t worth ruining relationships for, no one benefits from side stepping major and obvious problems. It can be painful, but if you can make it clear that you are giving criticism to help the author/speaker/student succeed, it is often received much better. After you have provided thorough criticism, it is gracious to acknowledge when you see improvements. This can help salve any bruised feelings, and reminds those people who have asked for our input that we are truly invested in their success.
Of course, criticism isn’t always accepted with grace. The best of us get defensive. As the critic, don’t take it personally.
Sandlin Seguin, Ph.D. earned her doctorate in molecular biology in 2011 from the University of Pittsburgh. She is a Curriculum and Faculty Development Specialist at the Life Science Informatics Center at Bellevue College.