Constructive Criticism Part I: Giving It 

I often recommend that writers seek peer feedback. Having a few trusted folks to help edit and give other kinds of guidance is priceless. Also, editing peer work helps you sharpen your own writing skills and allows you to learn about research before the rest of us peons.

So your friend/colleague/peer, Dr. Smartypants, has emailed you a draft. What next? Before you start tracking changes, follow this essential rule of providing constructive criticism: Ask what kind of feedback Smartypants wants. Don’t waste your time on editing granular word-choice issues it this is a first draft. It’s also extremely annoying to get comments like “incomplete without a section on mid-century slug-removal applications” on a final draft that’s almost out the door.

Types of feedback:

1) The 30,000-foot-view.

If Smartypants has a first draft of a new paper, focus on the general direction of the paper. Think like an editor with limited space in upcoming journal issues. Will this paper contribute to the literature? If not, what can Smartypants add? Suggest additional sources to check out. 

Also, give consideration to journal choice. As we point out in Practical Tips, picking a journal should be a first step, not last. If Smartypants hasn’t considered this yet, make suggestions. Writing for American Journal of Public Health requires a completely different 30,000-foot-view than does Military Medicine.

2) Mid-draft revision.

Smartypants has a draft that is pretty well fleshed out. Your job is to consider the general flow of the outline. Does this paper make a convincing argument or is there a different way to look at the issues? Is there an important section that it missing or perhaps superfluous literature review? This is a good time to suggest major edits regarding direction and content.

3) Final revisions.

Smartypants is almost ready to ship the paper to the editor. Now is your chance to grab the red pen and go to town. That’s right… work out all your aggression on poorly-worded syntax. Rip that passive voice a new one! Oh it feels so good to be so nerdy.

4) Smiley faces.

Always add a bit of positive feedback, even if the paper is a steaming pile (“nice choice of font!”). Sometimes folks don’t actually want constructive criticism. We all know a couple people like this. [Except me. I know no one like this. All my coworkers are amazing and without fault.] If one of these special academics has asked you for feedback, use gentle and hedging language. I suggest something like:

“Wow! What a great start. Already seems strong, but perhaps you could add more literature from the last twenty years? Also, in my experience, editors like when authors use spell check prior to submitting. I can’t wait to see a later draft!”

Helpful hint. If the paper is outside of your discipline or area of expertise, it is not your place to judge how interesting it is. Just assume that the topic is highly relevant and important. This may shock you, but all your friends and colleagues think your area of interest is a stupid waste of grant funding without a real-world application. There, there. Your next symposium at the regional association meeting will show them!

Tune in next week for Constructive Criticism Part II: Receiving it.