Nobody likes to hear criticism, especially of their writing. One of the biggest things holding many academic women back from writing and publishing more is the fear that our writing will be met with difficult-to-hear critique. But not all criticism is equal: there is some that you should listen to, and some that you should put aside.

In this blog post, I’ll identify three types of writing criticism and explain how you can respond to each one. By knowing how to respond to writing criticism, I hope you’ll be more confident and more likely to send your writing out into the world (which is where it needs to be).

Posturing

It should come as no surprise to anyone that there is a lot (I mean A LOT) of posturing in academia. The pressure is always on to sound smart, to respond to other people’s work in a way that shows what you’ve read and where you situate your work in the world. That’s not necessarily bad and it’s certainly part of the job. But sometimes that pressure to posture seeps into everything, especially writing criticism.

When someone is asked to review your work—either blind or in a published or spoken reaction—sometimes they feel as if they have to show you that they are qualified to review your work. This results in posturing.

Here’s how it might look in a written review:

  • Reviewer #2 suggests you cite a completely different body of literature than the one your work relies on (certainly a body of literature that he knows better than the one you cited).
  • A reviewer calls you out for not citing one very particular article and implies that you can’t possibly write scholarship in this field without citing it (maybe the reviewer is the author of said article, though I have a dear friend who has had this happen to her for not citing one of her own articles.)
  • The reviewer’s criticism does not actually engage with what you wrote, but rather just shows off how much he/she knows about the topic (this is the defining characteristic of posturing).

How do you deal with criticism that is really posturing? My strategy for responding to reviewer’s comments is to make a table that I include with my revision. It looks like this:

Reviewer’s Comment How I addressed it

When I get a comment such as “You couldn’t possibly not cite XXXX article in your work,” but I disagree, I simply explain myself in the “How I addressed it” column. For example, I might say, “I appreciate Reviewer #2’s suggestion to include XXXX article. However, for XXX reasons I decided to not cite that here.” This identifies posturing for the editor. If the editor decides that they really do want you to cite XXXX (or they send it back to reviewers and Reviewer #2 holds firm), then you can decide to do it (or not, and submit somewhere else). What this does is make the posturing of the reviewers apparent, and shows the editor that you’ll have none it. Remember: it’s your work, and you can decide who to cite (that’s not to say that reviewers are always wrong—more on that in the last section).

I’ve found that most of the time, after I push back, I’m not asked to make the changes suggested by posturing disguised as criticism.

Silencing

Here things get a little difficult. I add this type of criticism because I experienced it recently. It’s similar to posturing, but while posturing is not meant to block your publication (in fact, it doesn’t usually engage very much with your work at all), silencing grasps at any little problem with your work with the end goal to prevent its publication. I’ll tell you my story as an example.

I recently published my opinion about the role of the university in times of devastation in the Commentary section of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Now, The Chronicle is not a peer-reviewed journal of course, but this just goes to show you that every time we publish something we put ourselves out there, open to critique. After my article got lots of great feedback and sharing on social media, I was contacted by the editor. She informed me that one of my colleagues (yes, someone at my university) wrote to her insisting she retract my article.

I was shocked and horrified. I let all the feelings take over—rage, embarrassment, self-doubt. But when I looked at what exactly the person was disagreeing with, I realized that he was basically mansplaining on teeny, tiny points that were not the main point of the article (the main idea of the article pointed to the privileged place we hold as university professors and suggested that given this privilege we should help the non-university community more directly). He was basically in disagreement with my main idea and was trying to silence my message.

Thankfully the editor saw right through his comments and after checking with me on a fraction of them, printed a small correction.

How do you deal with silencing? Like posturing, you need to see through this kind of criticism (good editors help!). If you let yourself become enraged or beaten down, the silencer will win. Silencing looks like nit-picking, and for that reason, it can hurt and put you on the defensive. But once you recognize silencing, you’ll see that the person is grabbing at straws, that the critiques have no basis or are not related to your main point. If your piece has an editor, be sure to get in contact with him or her and call out the silencing. Don’t get into an internet fight with the person—be above that!—and let your work speak for itself.

Constructive Criticism

So far I’ve talked about two kinds of criticism that you can basically dismiss (posturing and silencing). But let’s face it: Even though it might hurt, most criticism that you get (from reviewers at least) should be heard and addressed. Let’s also admit that sometimes (most times) having your writing’s weaknesses revealed hurts a little. OK, maybe a lot.

The review process is there for a reason, and it is not to torture you. We are often so close to our own work that we can’t take a step back and see it from another perspective. That is exactly the job of the reviewer: To show us our blind spots, to see connections we didn’t see, to call us out before publication so that we aren’t called out after.

That said, hearing criticism can be overwhelming and sometimes even demoralizing. But here’s a mistake too many academics make: they put the reviews away and give up on the paper. They see the revisions as one enormous project and let themselves just push it down and put it off.

But remember: Your unique, once-only-on-earth perspective on your field needs to be out there changing the world. DON’T let criticism relegate your writing to a drawer.

Your unique, once-only-on-earth perspective on your field needs to be out there changing the world.Click To Tweet

How do you deal with criticism that is meant to improve your work (but that might feel overwhelming and scary)?

Responding to writing criticism

Here’s a step-by-step plan for how to deal with writing criticism in the form of reviews:

  1. When you receive reviews, make sure you are in the appropriate mental state to open them. If it’s first thing in the morning, a review can totally change your day (you might want to respond right away and push all your scheduled tasks off, or you might need consoling that will put a wrench in your day). You don’t have to look right away. At least take a few breaths first. Even better, get out your calendar and schedule an hour when you will look at the reviews.
  2. Once you’ve opened the reviews, read them, then wait 24 hours before doing anything.
  3. After 24 hours, read the reviews again. As you read, make a list of all the POSITIVE things the reviewers said.
  4. Read one more time. This time you’re going to make a chart like the one I mentioned above, with a column for the criticism and a column for how you plan to address (later you can revise this chart and send it to the editor along with your revision or re-submission). If you are dealing with the reviews electronically you can just copy and paste the critique or suggested change from the review into the chart.
  5. Now that you have the chart ready, make a first-pass decision about how you’ll address it. Identify the things that are easy to change, keeping in mind that sometimes cutting is path of least resistance. More difficult revisions, such as adding additional literature, re-analyzing data, etc., should also be identified so that they can be put into your calendar.
  6. Do all the low-hanging-fruit/easy-to-do changes first.
  7. Schedule out more time-consuming/difficult revisions on your calendar.

Breaking the revisions down into smaller steps helps alleviate feelings of overwhelm and makes sure you get your revision DONE.

If you’d like a PDF version of this list of steps, just pop in your email and I’ll send it right away!

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