February 13

when you receive negative feedback, how to respond maturely

Is there anything more annoying than getting negative feedback on your writing that says, “Your points weren’t fully substantiated, and I didn’t agree with all of the premises in the paper. Also, you need to be more consistent with your use of terms.”

Some mumbo jumbo like that. I imagine providers of such feedback look something like this:


And you can’t help but think, “What in the world do I do with this lame feedback?”

And that’s assuming the feedback doesn’t contradict itself because, let’s face it, that happens a lot.

What do you do with biased, unhelpful, negative feedback? You could write a snippy response letter, but I’m going to suggest that may not be the most… mature… way to handle the situation. Let’s try to be constructive? Take a deep breath, and here we go.

Treat the feedback as an imprecise barometer.

If a reviewer read your manuscript and felt that something was “off” but didn’t take the effort to identify exactly what wasn’t working, that doesn’t mean you can ignore the comments. Likely, there is something in the paper that you can fix, but you’ll have to put on your detective’s monocle to figure it out. The reviewer pointed out a problem, but it’s up to you to identify the problem and the best way to fix it.

Don’t allow yourself to feel too uptight or resentful. Remember, this is your manuscript, and it is your job to present your ideas to the best of your abilities.

I suggest a reverse outline. Read through each paragraph slowly, and create an outline from the existing points, as if you were a student reading your paper for the first time. Try to summarize the point of each paragraph in one sentence.

As you reverse outline your paper, you should see your logical structure emerging in the outline. Each sentence summary should contribute to a supporting point, and each supporting point should contribute to the larger argument. If you see any points that are unnecessary or that skip a part of your argument, you can bet that’s one of the problems that made the reviewer feel like something was “off.”

What if the reviewer was just biased against my findings?

Well, yeah, that’s completely possible, but, I would still recommend that you soothe away feelings of resentment. You can’t do much about biased reviewers, I’m sorry.

Work on what you can control. Make a list of arguments that any skeptical/biased reviewer would have against your argument. Then, make sure that you specifically and straightforwardly counter each of them.

Try to avoid a defensive or combative tone. Imagine that you’re talking to your mentor or someone you really admire, and that person brings up these counter points to your argument. In your mind, think “Okay, yes, I can see how this is a reasonable question to my argument. Let me see if I can address it in a way that makes sense.”

I don’t suggest being cowardly. Just try to be understanding, even as you straightforwardly destroy counter arguments.

Ask for follow-up feedback, if possible.

If you can contact the person who gave the original feedback, ask for a follow-up. Describe the ways in which you addressed the reviewer’s concerns. Outline each of the points that you have added to the manuscript and provide an updated manuscript, with each of the new sections highlighted or in a different color font.

Then, ask the reviewer if you addressed all of her concerns. Does she have any additional advice to ensure the paper is the best it can be? And brace yourself for the reply.

In the end, the reviewer might be wrong.

Let’s just come out and say it: reviewers can be wrong. Sometimes reviewers are in a hurry, don’t care about your research, don’t like you or your topic, and are generally insensitive to authors. It sucks, I know.

Being a creative (even a non-fiction, academic kind of creative) leaves you vulnerable to criticism. You spend an enormous amount of effort reading, researching, thinking, writing, and you put yourself out there. You desperately want approval from everyone who reads what you have to say. We all do!

Not everyone is going to love what you have to say, and that’s a good thing. If your writing is so amiable and unoffensive that everyone likes it, you’re probably not saying anything important. So take the criticism as a sign that you’re writing something that makes waves in the water.

In the end, if you have done your best to thoughtfully address the reviewer’s concerns about your manuscript and the reviewer still has negative things to say, you just have to square your shoulders and politely say, “Then we’ll have to agree to disagree.” If you believe in your message, your manuscript, and your words, stand by them, even in the face of harsh critics.

Then, try to find a way around the reviewer. If you’re submitting to a journal, email the editor, maybe ask for the opinion of another reviewer. Or submit to another journal. If you’re submitting to a book publisher, well, you may have to knock on the door of another publisher. Many books are rejected by dozens of publishers, only to later become bestsellers. If you can’t find a traditional book publisher, consider self-publishing.

What has been your worst experience with feedback? How did you respond?

Leave a comment below. You never know what other writers you may be helping, just by leaving a comment.


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