What your supervisor means when they give advice on your draft

Okay, so this is something that I watch candidates go through, and also something I discovered when I started to give feedback as a supervisor myself.

Ready to comment on a manuscript on a weekend, typical supervisor style.
Ready to comment on a manuscript on a weekend, typical supervisor style.

Your supervisor is probably not actually that good at giving written feedback on drafts. Speaking for myself, a lot of feedback annotations are just my notes to myself about what worked or didn’t, or pointers for things that I would mark up or down, or a quick proof read. It’s much easier to copy edit than it is to give deep structural formative feedback. It’s also much easier to only comment on what wasn’t quite right.

Supervisors are often very busy, and trying to fit in large chunks of difficult reading on top of their day job may mean that their comments are quick, semi-legible, and reactive. The feedback often isn’t a book review, it is annotations and reactions.

This can cause anxiety, confusion and resentment. Candidates sometimes take the feedback personally, or they are looking for reassurance, or they are hating all over their own writing. This means the candidate can then struggle to turn the comments into the necessary revisions and to write the next draft.

Instead of tearing your hair out, here are some tactics and strategies to help you make those steps and take the sting and sorrow out of feedback comments.

  1. Save yourself the obvious annoyances.
    Include the page numbers. Use spell check. Avoid that thing that drives your supervisor crazy. If your draft isn’t at 75% finished, perhaps submit just the introduction, or a report of the work you have done.
  2. Don’t rely on just your supervisor for feedback.
    Get a writing buddy, mentor, coach, copy editor, and experts, to read your work at different stages. Each of them will provide a different kind of feedback—so you probably need someone who will give you structural feedback on early drafts as well as the person who will notice every stray comma.
  3. Ask for specific kinds of feedback (and match the kind of feedback to your supervisor’s strength as an editor / reader). For example:
    “Can you give me high-level general feedback as to whether the research direction seems sensible? This is a very early draft.”
    “I’m happy with the argument and content of the chapter but would love you to read through and do a careful final read to make it examinable.”
    Also follow up with specific questions when you meet your supervisor afterwards.
    Examples are:
    “I notice there are a lot of corrections here about spelling, grammar and punctuation. Do you prefer to get drafts only when they are highly polished?”
    “You have some major issues with my structure, but have also made detailed comments about my phrasing. Am I right in thinking that I should restructure my chapter first, and only then worry about those phrases if they are still in the draft?
  4. Learn to distinguish between the different kinds of ’corrections’:
    • Corrections that should go into your chapter verbatim.
      Sometimes what you have written is wrong, and the comment is right. Then you should just retype what the supervisor has written. This is the most straightforward kind.
    • Corrections that are suggestions.
      Sometimes the supervisor comments that you would improve the structure of the chapter by swapping two sections, but when you sit down and try to do it, it makes things worse. Then you should obviously decide not to implement the changes, but perhaps make a note of why you decided against it.
    • Corrections that are identifying an issue.
      Sometimes the comments are strongly disagreeing with something that you haven’t actually claimed, that isn’t what you are trying to do. Rather than worry about the fact that the comments aren’t fair, notice that you weren’t sufficiently clear and obvious. Go back and explain it better so the next reader won’t make the same mistake.
  5. Write for your reader, not for yourself. 
    Early drafts are often places for you to work out your position and think through the research. Remember that it is your supervisor’s job to help you produce a text that will be passed by external examiners, and their feedback should be helping you to understand what is expected of submitted work.
  6. Trust the good feedback. 
    “This all looks on track”
    “Good work”
    some ticks
    Many candidates worry when they don’t get a lot of feedback on their drafts. In my experience, supervisors trust good candidates to get on with it. If your supervisor is happy with your work, you are probably doing fine. Ask around the other candidates working with your supervisor, if some people are getting lots of very detailed feedback and rigorous rewrites, and you are getting ‘this is great, keep it up’, then you are likely doing really well. Your supervisor knows that you are successfully transitioning to becoming an independent scholar.

Hopefully this will help you next time you get feedback from your supervisor, to help make your writing better, and help you progress towards getting that thesis-thing done!

It’s lovely to be back on Research Degree Voodoo–I’ve missed blogging and I hope to be around a bit more often now the new job is moving towards being a bit more routine!

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3 Comments

  1. Well said.

    I found one of my supervisor’s approach to giving feedback particularly helpful. She gave detailed (reactive and/or thoughful) annotated comments, and then a few more digested higher level key points to help me take that step back. I try to apply this startegy in giving feedback myself; to various degrees of success.

    I consistently find that turning (even thoughful) feedback into better writing can be a struggle for people, and it isn’t always easy to explain how exactly to do it. I also recognise how much practice it took me to acquire that skill. Your breakdown here is really helpful in explaining how to cultivate the skill of making good use of feedback. I will recommend your post widely!
    Big thanks, Niina

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