Managing feelings about feedback

Managing feelings about feedback

Anne Wilson

Anne Wilson

Feedback – on writing and in general – can arouse strong emotions, from relief, to delight, to incandescent rage. To enjoy praise and to feel defensive when criticised are both very human responses. Our reactions to feedback, including comments on our writing, can tap into childhood experiences of approval and disapproval. Every professional writer knows what it’s like to have their prose picked apart, but they also know the satisfaction of improving their writing through constructive criticism. So how can we clamber over the hurdle of our feelings and use feedback to improve the way we write? Here are some tips that I share with postgraduate students in my workshops on feedback.

The first step is to acknowledge how you feel and give it space. Are you furious that your supervisor hates your chapter? That’s understandable, so punch a pillow, have a rant, work it out at the gym. Maybe think about what exactly is upsetting you. Is it about your relationship with that person? Are you taking the comments personally? Do you feel particularly fragile at the moment? Identifying the source of your feelings helps to separate the personal from the professional, the emotional from the intellectual. When you’ve cooled down, take another look at the chapter. The chances are that your supervisor doesn’t hate it entirely, but has singled out certain aspects for criticism. In the cold light of day, you may think some of the criticisms are fair. But there may be other points on which you completely disagree.

Start with the points you think are fair and consider how to edit to accommodate them. Then, consciously choose which points are worth defending and develop a cogent counter-argument about why they should stay in. How you manage this depends, of course, on your relationship with the person giving you feedback and on the power differential between you. But even if, in the end, you edit your work to please them, you will feel better having stated your case.

If you are passionately involved in your topic and believe in your own arguments, it’s natural to feel disappointed by negative feedback. But if you can name your feelings and articulate their source, you are less likely to let them swamp your intellect. Improving your writing by using feedback will make your writing stronger and give you the tools to keep improving.

28 February 2019
Communicate and collaborate

Communicate and collaborate

Lucy English


Image credit: Simon Goldstein

As PhD students and researchers, communicating with people outside our discipline can open our minds, expand our horizons and help to develop our thinking. It can also lead to fruitful collaboration.

In a session for PhD researchers about communicating research, I put the participants into pairs with someone from another discipline and asked them to describe their work to each other. They had to avoid jargon and were encouraged to listen carefully to the questions they were asked. Somebody from a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subject might ask an artist, ‘Why are you doing this?’ — just as an arts student might ask a scientist, ‘Please explain it simply’. The researchers found it instructive to communicate the vision of their project to a non-specialist.

Communicating with others outside my own specialism led to a collaborative project for my practice-based PhD. I am making short films with film-makers for an online poetry film project. Previously, I hadn’t thought about how my ideas would translate to the moving image, but I’ve learnt a lot by collaborating with people from the visual arts. Interpreting a poem in a film is not how I thought it would be. For example, for my poem ‘Daisy Chain’, where I link daisies in the grass with the nature of transience, my film-maker used images of a snowy landscape. The words of the poem, about summer meadows and blossom, are in stark contrast to the snow and frost, but capture beautifully the essence of the poem, where daisies and youth will eventually fade.

Why not see if you can communicate your research to people outside your field and find a collaborator from another discipline? Funding opportunities exist for collaborative bids from PhD students and researchers for inter-disciplinary work, particularly between the arts and sciences or social sciences. PhD forums within universities are a good place to start looking. Working with someone with a different perspective can be a humbling experience as you accept your ignorance about their field and adopt an open mind, prepared to learn. Removing the blinkers of your discipline can spark off ideas and take your research in a fresh direction.

14 February 2019
Think around your research question

Think around your research question

Image credit: Anna Barker

Anna Barker

On a writing retreat recently with students from the Arts and Humanities, we were talking about how research is about finding answers. You start – typically after much deliberation – with a research question, and everything that follows is about discovering answers. It seems simple enough, although of course it’s rarely that straightforward. The research takes you on a journey down rabbit holes, around blind bends, up steep cliff faces, and every now and then you can feel like you’ve hit a wall: obstacles, unexpected deviations, surprises. Suddenly, what you’ve got in front of you seems a long way from answering your research question. Unsettling as this might be, it’s all part of the research story.

When your research journey hits a wall, it can be useful to take a step back and forget for a moment that you are searching for answers. Instead, dig for more questions. This not only helps you to recalibrate your research question, but it can also open new doors and push your thinking into new, previously unexplored territory.

The technique works well for essays. Having received your essay question, you might set off immediately to answer it. But by taking some time to think of additional related questions, you can work out what you know about the subject already and where you might focus your thinking and reading. Take this essay question as an example:

Critically evaluate the suggestion that problems of overcrowding, bullying and poor conditions have always been, and will continue to be, of concern to penal reformers.

  • What is the extent of overcrowding and bullying in prisons — facts, figures?
  • What is meant by ‘poor conditions’ and what are the causes?
  • What has contributed to this situation — has it become worse over time, and why?
  • What are the reasons overcrowding might concern penal reformers — it leads to less time for penal education/other activities that encourage rehabilitation of inmates?
  • Examples of other activities?
  • Evidence that education/other activities enable rehabilitation?
  • Opposing views?

Once you have a list of additional questions, you can begin reading and note down some possible answers. Your notes might even prompt you to ask further questions. Best of all, you’ll have focused your reading time and begun to get some words on the page that can later be used to shape a first draft.

31 January 2019
Where’s the conflict?

Where’s the conflict?

Image credit: Kona Macphee

Heather Dyer

When I’m writing fiction, I only recognise what a story is really about when it’s very near completion. Only then does it become clear that it’s about ‘control versus letting go’, for example, or ‘security versus freedom’. I realise I need to go back and find the places in the text where these tensions arise, and explore them more deeply.

This can apply in academic writing in the arts, humanities and social sciences, too. Try the following exercise with your essay, dissertation or thesis. Identifying opposing elements in your work can expose underlying conflicts and reveal potential themes.

  1. In two columns, list at least five pairs of ‘opposites’ within your project. You might identify opposing elements in relation to size, space or time — or personality, habitat or temperature, for example.
  2. Freewrite to reflect on the relationships between these pairs of opposites. (Freewriting is writing steadily without stopping and without knowing where you’re going.)
  3. Identify places in your work where you may want to consider these relationships further or make the conflicts more apparent.

I used this exercise on my own doctoral thesis, which explores parallels between the mythic archetype – or classic story arc – and the creative process. I quickly noted down the following ‘opposites’ in these paradigms:

Female Male
Starting out Returning
Conscious Unconscious
Not-knowing Insight
Surrender Questing
Heroine Hero


Studying the list, I noticed that these opposites might be further aligned by the typical qualities of masculine and feminine, or yin and yang:

Masculine Feminine
Male Female
Starting out Returning
Conscious Unconscious
Insight Not-knowing
Questing Surrender
Hero Heroine


I realised that the protagonist’s journey through a story and an individual’s creative process both swung between these two poles. This informed the conclusion of my thesis.

At a writing workshop for artists and writers, I asked them to consider opposites within their own work in progress. Participants identified contrasts they hadn’t previously been aware of: movement and stasis; smooth and rough; child and adult. These tensions triggered ideas that enabled them to develop the central theme of their work.

If you try this exercise, it might help you identify hidden tensions that reveal a theme. You may then want to ensure that you have highlighted these tensions within the work itself.

17 January 2019
Reading as a writer

Reading as a writer

Cherise Saywell

Image credit: Brodie Leven

Sometimes when I run a workshop, I ask participants to bring along a sample of some writing they like. I don’t make this compulsory, but the response is usually an indicator of how they read. Around half will contribute something, and of these just a few will articulate why they like it.

In her book, Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword says that ‘A carefully crafted sentence welcomes its reader like a comfortable rocking chair, bears its reader across chasms like a suspension bridge, and helps its reader navigate tricky terrain like a well-hewn walking stick.’ I tell participants that in order to achieve this in their own work, they need to learn to read as writers. Those who can identify work they admire – and explain why – are already beginning to engage in this process. It’s a vital step that a lot of students seem to bypass. They read to harvest ideas, theories and evidence, and to deepen their knowledge. But not to develop their writing.

At one workshop, a participant contributed an abstract from a scientific journal. When I asked what he liked about the writing, he answered that he found it clear and logical. It flowed, and he felt it spoke to him. To such a response, my next question is always, how? Identify how it flows, and what makes it clear. Concrete images? Strong verbs? What makes that voice assertive, or remarkable? Sentences can function like music, using rhythm and balance to build and sustain pace; taking them apart can reveal how this is achieved. Conversely, if the writing seems deficient in some way, I’d suggest identifying why — it’s not enough to simply declare that a piece is poorly written.

I’d like to develop this aspect of my workshops further. Engaging physically – with pen and paper, with highlighters, reading aloud – can help us to understand how text is composed. I plan to distribute samples of writing and have participants work together in groups to identify the strengths in each piece, copying sentences down, highlighting phrases that demonstrate well-crafted prose, reading sections out loud. Such practices are central to the discipline of reading as a writer.

13 December 2018
Solvitur Ambulando

Solvitur Ambulando

Amanda Swift

‘It is solved by walking’ is the literal meaning of this Latin phrase, attributed both to Saint Augustine and Diogenes of Sinope. Many writers have sung the praises of walking, including the French author and political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau: ‘I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind works only with my legs.’ The image of the writer pacing up and down the room, wrestling with a writing problem, is a common one.

Writing problems are better solved if you keep pacing, but do it outside. It is common knowledge that walking is beneficial to both physical and mental health. I find it is also useful for problem-solving, be it creative or academic. As you walk, the changes in your surroundings that you notice, even subliminally, can trigger changes in your thinking. New connections between ideas can be made, and it is this process that is key to academic and creative thinking.

If you’re a student, walking to a workplace outside the home, such as a library or café, can be so much better than going straight from your bed to your desk. As you walk, you usually notice other people who may be struggling with different and greater pressures; this experience offers a sobering sense of perspective that can be harder to find at home.

Going for a walk also makes an excellent break during writing. In my workshops, students sometimes tell me that they spend hours at their desk because they are stressed about meeting a deadline, but they get little done. I suggest they take a break and go for a short walk to clear their mind, focusing on the sights, sounds and smells around them. When they return to their desk, they will hopefully have relaxed and be able to work more effectively.

Walking doesn’t cost anything but time, which you will regain afterwards when you progress through your work faster. You can even write while walking. Apparently, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes had an inkhorn built into his walking stick so that he could note down any interesting thoughts on his daily walk. I prefer to make notes on my phone, but that’s not essential. The only things that you really need for this writing technique are a pair of shoes and an open door.

28 November 2018
Finding the nugget of gold

Finding the nugget of gold

Image credit: Anna Barker

Anna Barker

I recently wrote a story for a collection I’m working on at the moment. It was going well — so well, in fact, that the short story grew and became a novella. I got to around 22,000 words, which seemed to be the end. I’d written the climax scene and it all hung together. Great, I thought . . . and yet. There was a ‘but’, a niggle. Something didn’t feel right. The theme – the heart of the story – wasn’t quite working, and without it everything else didn’t really gel.

Yet there was something there: a surprise, a nugget of gold. Small, buried, but it was there. It was actually what had been sitting in my unconscious since I first dreamed up the story, only I hadn’t realised it and I hadn’t foreseen it in any of my advance planning. I needed to redraft or do some freewriting (writing in a free-flowing way, without worrying about accuracy) to think about this nugget some more and then refine what I’d found.

Sometimes, even if you have a detailed plan, it is only through the act of writing that you discover what you have really been trying to say. When I’m working with PhD students, I encourage them to make a detailed plan, but I also remind them that it’s OK to amend it once they start writing. It’s about staying open to new connections and possibilities in the work, and these are much more likely to happen when you get into the flow of the writing itself.

Earlier this year, I asked my students on a writing retreat how they approached a new project. Some did a plan on screen, some on the floor with paper and sticky notes; others started writing straight away to see where it took them. None of these are wrong, and different approaches suit different people. For me, the writing process is a combination of planning, freewriting, writing and redrafting. I often revisit these stages, in any order, several times during a single project. For example, I might need to revise my plan after I have started writing, or I might get stuck and do some freewriting to work through whatever is blocking the way before I get back to the writing itself. The best work comes when I keep things creative and use a range of different techniques. It’s this combination of different writing – and thinking techniques – that helps the students I work with to develop their writing processes and, hopefully, find nuggets of gold in their own work.

15 November 2018


Image credit: Kona Macphee

Heather Dyer

You’ve done the research for your project, collected your data and you have an idea of where it’s all going. Perhaps you’ve even written a draft and are happy with the structure and the argument. But can you see the ‘big picture’ as clearly as you would like to?

Remember join-the-dot pictures? With each new connection, more of the picture is revealed. While you were researching and writing, you will have made many new connections: connections between sentences, paragraphs and different aspects of your project. But often, potential links remain unrealised. The more connections you’re aware of, the more clearly you will see the big picture.

The following exercise can help bring previously hidden connections into your awareness. Try it for your essay, thesis or even for creative writing.

1. Quite quickly write down 20 words associated with your project, dotted across a blank piece of paper,
2. Now circle pairs of words that may have a relationship and draw lines to link them. If you don’t see any obvious relationships, that’s fine; make pairs anyway.
3. Write quickly and roughly for two or three minutes about each pair of words, looking for the connections between them.

Recently, at a writing retreat for PhD students, I asked the participants to do this exercise. Several students volunteered to explain the new connections they’d made. A student writing a thesis on the history of dance had connected the words ‘dance’ and ‘movement’. She said that freewriting about these words had made her fully consider the difference between them for the first time. ‘Dance’ was shaped by history and convention, whereas ‘movement’ was expansive and more fluid. She decided that she needed to define these terms more carefully and reconsider their application in her thesis. Another student was writing a thesis on a poet. She connected the words ‘shadow’ and ‘line’. The links between ‘shadow’ and ‘line’ gave her a way to describe the impression of a line of poetry and connect it to the ‘shadow’ cast by the poet’s work.

See if this exercise reveals connections that have been lurking in your unconscious mind but have not yet emerged in your writing. Once these connections emerge, the big picture is so much clearer.

1 November 2018
You before me: prioritising the reader

You before me: prioritising the reader

Katie Grant

Image credit: Debbie Toksvig

When writing the first draft of a novel, I don’t think much about the reader, if at all. The reader would distract from the world I’m creating. When I plan, I plan for the characters, for their relationships with each other and for what happens to those relationships. During first creation, it’s ‘me (the writer) before you (the reader)’.

For doctoral students writing a thesis, the priorities are precisely the opposite. Even at first draft, the thesis writer has to think carefully about what the reader needs to know at any given point. Likåe a novel, a doctoral thesis can surprise or shock, but while readers of novels can be bamboozled and even, if the novelist wishes, hoodwinked, the reader of a doctoral thesis should never be bamboozled, and hoodwinking is out of the question. From the start of a thesis to the end, it’s ‘you (the reader) before me (the writer)’.

Running an academic writing retreat this summer, it was clear that while doctoral students understand ‘you before me’ in theory, it’s not easy in practice. Unsurprisingly, doctoral students at the writing-up stage want to show off their research, their academic insights and discernments, their original thinking, their argument. And so they should. But research, insights, discernments, original thinking and, most importantly, the force of an argument are all diminished if the thesis writer has prioritised what they want to say above what they have prepared the reader to absorb.

So how do you prepare the reader? First, you must decide who the reader is. Doctoral students should rightly focus on their supervisors and examiners as readers, but sponsors and research partners might also need to be taken into account. The readability of their text should be discussed with their supervisor, as well as perennial worries, such as how much explanation is required for discipline-specific terms.

But whoever the reader, the persuasive power of a thesis lies in the writer shepherding them smoothly from point to point, making sure each point builds on the one before. One useful technique is the ‘nine-point thesis’. This involves identifying up to nine critical points in your thesis – for example, when there is a shift in argument or an approach from a new angle – and listing these points (a sentence or two) in the order you will present them. Any disconnect or jolt between points should spring out at you, and you may need to tweak the order.

At this summer’s retreat, my fellow facilitator and I asked participants to practise the nine-point thesis using a fairy tale familiar from their childhood. From the Western tradition, Little Red Riding Hood in nine points! From other traditions, other stories. It’s a fun task, and demonstrates the linear structure from which most theses benefit. The students can play about with their nine points, too. If they change the order in their tale, what difference does it make to the story? They return to their theses with readerly eyes, ready, if necessary, to adjust the order of the points they are making, and with a technique to help them do so.

A novelist, too, cannot ignore the reader forever. For me, the morphing of ‘me before you’ into ‘you before me’ is part of the editing process. That’s the novelist’s privilege. It’s not a privilege a thesis writer enjoys. For doctoral students aiming for maximum impact, it has to be ‘you before me’ all the way from first draft to viva.

18 October 2018
What should I do when I get stuck?

What should I do when I get stuck?

This is a common question I get asked by university students and staff alike. At some time or other, many of us experience writer’s block. When we sit down to write, nothing comes out.

There is no one simple solution to the problem because the causes of writer’s block vary. You might be exhausted or in the wrong state of mind. Perhaps you haven’t done enough preparation or you’re not clear about what you’re trying to do. Sometimes, just taking a break is enough.

But if writer’s block is more than temporary, try freewriting. When I’m stuck, I walk away from the computer, grab a pad of paper and a pen, step outside, find a quiet place to sit and write ‘I’m stuck!’ on the top of a sheet. I then write for 5 to 15 minutes, responding to the statement as a stream of consciousness. I don’t worry about grammar or punctuation or even writing proper sentences. I let go of being self-critical. I might draw a flow diagram or a mind map. One way or another, I dump my thoughts on paper. In doing so, I invariably find a way forward.

When I use freewriting with doctoral students in the sciences or social sciences who have writer’s block, various issues surface. Often, they have not done enough background reading, thinking and planning to be ready to write. They think that starting writing will force them to do the required reading. But trying to read papers as you write is usually a recipe for slow, piecemeal, turgid writing. You need to put in the groundwork beforehand.

Another common issue arises when you sit down to write, and your unconscious mind sees a problem coming up several paragraphs ahead that prevents you even starting. This is nowhere near as serious as it sounds. Do some freewriting, and you will usually discover the problem; for example, you’ve got a gap in your argument or you don’t have enough supporting citations to bolster your argument. You can either get on with writing, ‘jump’ past the tricky part, and return to it later, or you can try to sort it out before you write. I tend to go for the first option because I don’t want to procrastinate.

An emotional block can also cause writer’s block. When you sit down to write, feelings start to well up. Perhaps you’re concerned about what others will think about your work or you recall recent criticism from a supervisor and it immobilises you. Again, use freewriting to help identify the issue and find the solution. The act of writing allows you to see the problem on paper, outside of yourself, and lessens its power. You can move beyond it.

Although it is not academic writing, freewriting helps with the process of academic writing. The act of expressing your thoughts less self-consciously helps to reduce tension and encourages you to get on with it. The more you practise writing as a daily ritual, the less likely you are to be troubled by writer’s block. You become accustomed to sitting down to write and getting on with it. You might like to do that now!

4 October 2018