Getting quality feedback on your work-in-progress

How do you become a better writer? The horror writer Stephen King’s response was, ‘read a lot and write a lot.’ To that I would add, ‘get quality feedback.’

Recently, I submitted my ‘Sardine’ manuscript to my publisher. This is a book for wildlife lovers, budding chefs and anyone concerned with the natural environment. The book is much more than the story of a fish — it is a window on our relationship with the ocean world.

Before submitting the manuscript, I had colleagues check individual chapters. Historians read the chapters on the rise and fall of sardine fisheries. Scientists scrutinised my chapters about ecology, fish design and sardine behaviour, while fellow writers commented on my culinary and culture chapters. Getting this feedback was vital. It reinforced what I was doing right – thankfully a lot – and highlighted where I could tweak and improve the narrative, my arguments and the power of my prose.

In my work with research postgraduates and academic staff at Aston, Bath, Exeter and other universities I encourage them to get quality feedback before they submit their finished work. Giving feedback on writing is not easy because it operates on so many levels. What can you do, for example, to improve the overall structure, your argument and the fluency and clarity of your writing? Added to this are finer details, such as grammar and punctuation, citing and referencing, and any visual features.

My advice is to ask for feedback from the person best suited to give it. Get feedback on grammar and punctuation or citing and referencing from a trusted friend or colleague. Then ask for feedback on structure, style and argument from your supervisor or another appropriate staff member. Asking for targeted feedback from two or more people can help you swiftly develop your writing. To do that, of course, you have to factor in enough time to ask for, get and incorporate that specific feedback. In my experience, it is well worth the trouble.

26 October 2016