Providing nonexpert feedback
Grad students benefit from having “nonexperts” read their work. Nonexperts bring in an outside view, and they can point to areas where your work may be too “jargony” or dense for them to follow. Yes, it’s true, for example, that my husband may not understand what “cognitive regulation” means. However, he can still spot awkward sentences, and gaps in my logic.
On a similar line to yesterday’s post, I highly suggest that you, as a grad student, should invest time reading other classmates’ work, even if you’re new in grad school, or the work comes outside of your field. Academic language gets easier with immersion, and learning to edit someone else’s work also refines your skills to edit your own.
When reading other people’s work that is outside your field, here some things to look for that can helpful for the writer:
- Clarity – Does the writing make sense, or is it too “constipated?” Long gone are the days when academics would choose the longest, most complicated words from the thesaurus in order to sound intelligible. Nowadays, if the work doesn’t make sense, it means the academic didn’t try hard enough (or they’re truly an idiot who’s covering for inadequacies). Help your friends by pointing out where sentences seem overly complex, confusing, or excessively dense. In other words, do you get a sense for what the writer is trying to say? If not, point them in the right direction!
- Continuity – Does the logic work? Even if you may not quite understand half the terminology in the writing, you should be able to get a sense of it through contextual cues. Are there places where you’re not sure exactly how the person arrived at their conclusions? Were they able to warrant their arguments with strong evidence? Are there gaps where they jump from one claim to the next without bridges to lead you in their thinking? Show them where these are!
- Persuasiveness – Does their argument make sense? Did they convince you of what they’re trying to say? If not, where did they lose you? What would you have wanted to see, that would’ve convinced you?
- Organization – Does each paragraph clearly convey one idea? Are there key or topic sentences that are in each paragraph, or, are all the ideas jumbled together? In early drafts, it is very easy to tangle up ideas into multiple paragraphs. Help them, by trying to connect fragmented pieces together.
- Word choice, spelling, grammar – Even of you’re not sure you are right, when in doubt, highlight these, and ask (e.g., I’m not sure your use of ___ is correct in this…). If anything, it helps sensitize the person to particular points and sentences.
The last thing – DO NOT, and I repeat, DO NOT return a piece of writing with just, “This looks great!” and no other input. This does not help the writer make their work better. Personally, this is the least helpful bit of feedback you can ever give (and I probably won’t give someone any more of my work to read, nor will I read any of theirs, if they return comments to me like this). Do these things, instead:
- Tag sentences/paragraphs you thought were really good or strong.
- Mark places where you thought felt weak or could be made stronger.
- Rephrase/summarize pieces (e.g., If I’m getting this right, this is what you’re trying to say here) – this helps the author know whether what you interpret is aligned with what they’re trying to say
- Offer your thoughts (e.g., I see this, and here’s what I’m thinking)
Giving input to other people helps you practice and hone your critical eye for your own work, so don’t don’t pass up the chance to help out!
However, always keep in mind, though, that the writer has a right to take or ignore any of your feedback. It’s good to keep this in mind, that what you suggest may not be taken. However, if this is a person who is truly seeking to improve their writing, all suggestions will be greatly appreciated!