Dealing with negative feedback
You know the feeling.
You’ve spent the last month working on a manuscript/paper, have fleshed out your ideas, spent countless late nights editing and making things sound *just* right, and you’ve finally sent it in to your supervisor. This will be the draft. This will be the one that they read and go “Wow! Good job! Submit this to Nature immediately!” And it’ll be accepted within a week, and you’ll be flown to Washington to present the paper to President Barack Obama himself, and, while you’re there, BB King will show up and you’ll jam together in the oval office, and, just when you think you’re about to finish your Epic Blues Jam Session, Bill Clinton will come by and play the saxophone.
But then, your supervisor sends you your paper back, and it’s either covered in red ink or there are 714 comments in Microsoft’s Track Changes.
One of the major reasons you’re in grad school is to learn from these experiences. There is a reason your supervisor is the Canada Research Chair of Awesomeness, or is internationally known for their work. It’s because they’re very good at what they do, and part of what they do is write, and write well. Your goal is to learn everything you can from them, and in that process, improve your skills. And writing is just one part of this process – your ideas will need refinement, your writing will need work, your teaching will need improvement, all of these are skills you can work on during your graduate education. However, in order to improve, you need to deal with feedback, which can come from a wide range of sources including your supervisor, your students (via TA/TF evaluations) and people at conferences.
1: Take a break.
The first thing I tell all the students I work with when they get back corrections is to read it, then leave it. Skim over the comments, get that initial “THIS IS THE WORST NEWS EVAR!” feeling out, and then go for a walk. Once that initial visceral response has passed, you can start dealing with the comments themselves. As this 99u article says:
Don’t react defensively – or aggressively – no matter how hurt, disappointed, or annoyed you feel. Start by taking a deep breath and reminding yourself of your goal.
2: Remove emotion from the equation.
As silly as it sounds, you do get emotionally attached to your writing over time. You’ve spent countless hours tweaking everything, making it sound *just right* before sending it in. You’ve read and reread sentences again and again to make sure they’re clear. Your supervisor then rewrites many of those sentences, and may suggest that some are unclear and need work. At a conference, someone might be less diplomatic, and call your work all kinds of names. You need to take emotion out of the equation as you hear those comments, and decide what comments have merit and require further thought. One thing you should not do is take criticism of you to be a personal attack. Negative feedback isn’t personal. By removing any emotional responses from the comments, you can evaluate comments on their own merit, and decide how to deal with them.
3: Triage comments
In an emergency room, patients are triaged. Those with life-threatening conditions are identified as high priorities, while those who do not need immediate attention will be waiting for beds to open up. Similarly, you need to identify which comments are important, and need to be addressed immediately, and which are stylistic and you can let slide. Pick your battles.
4: Identify constructive criticism
We’re now thinking of comments outside of those that your supervisor would give you – we’re into the realm of feedback from students, audience members at presentations, and others. Listen to the comments, and understand why the feedback is being given and what you can do to improve. What you really need to do here is identify what is constructive and helpful, and where the comment is coming from so you know how to fix it. Use the comments to help you, and be objective about whether or not it is useful – even if you don’t like the comment.
5: Ignore personal attacks
One of the best pieces of advice I got as a Masters student was to listen to all comments and evaluate them all, even the ones you don’t agree with, but to always ignore personal attacks. And you will get personal attacks – students will write mean comments in TA evaluations, people will attack you at conferences, and, especially if you put your ideas out on the internet, you will get called all kinds of names. It’s very easy to dwell on those comments: don’t. You know you’re good at what you do, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
6: Don’t listen to everyone
And thus we get to the final point: don’t listen to everyone. Everyone will have advice, everyone will have an opinion. Take the points that you like, synthesize them, and use your own judgement to decide what works for you and fits your project/worldview (that includes this article). Don’t accept everything blindly. Decide what you stand for, and if someone is arguing with you about it, plant your feet firmly and don’t budge.