Tips for giving constructive criticism on academic writing

In the course I’m teaching on academic writing for graduate students, the students are required to practice peer review: they have to give constructive criticism on drafts of one another’s essays. Some students have asked how to present criticism constructively: “My feedback on —‘s paper is quite critical,” wrote one student. “Any pointers in how I can manage the tone better would be appreciated, I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.”

Giving criticism constructively is tricky, but it does get easier with practice. And while expectations of tone and etiquette can vary (for instance, anecdotally, academics in Europe don’t mince words the way North Americans do), academia tends widely to uphold standards, for peer review and critique, of politeness, professionalism, and focus on a given argument’s substance (theory, method, evidence, reasoning) and form (structure and style). These are standards of constructive criticism: criticism intended to support and strengthen writing in progress.

So how to put the principle of constructive criticism into practice? Here are a few of the rhetorical moves I use in giving constructive criticism to students’ work and colleagues’ papers:

    Give good news with bad news: begin by saying something positive about the work, something you think it does well, before moving on to discuss something you don’t like or something it doesn’t do well.

    Substitute imperative for negative: instead of saying something negative (e.g. “this paper doesn’t review enough articles”), say it as an imperative (e.g. “this paper needs to review more articles”). this also makes your criticism action-oriented; you provide specific steps and actions the recipient can take.

    Recognize intent amidst error: try to identify and if possible praise what a given bit or whole piece of writing is trying or intending to do – and then go on to discuss how it could better realize or achieve that intent.

    Be specific: this is related to the imperative idea above – constructive criticism means criticism that can be concretely acted on by its recipient. so avoid general or vague judgments about the whole work or about its component parts – instead, highlight specific ways to improve the work.

The practice of constructive criticism is vital in studies and research – especially in the distributed, “virtual” classrooms like those of #AthaU, where students aren’t actually facing one another, and where the risks are consequently higher for either remaining too reserved or getting rude. But constructive criticism is an eminently “transferable skill,” too, one that is important in lots of different work and social situations and communications. Since we’re trying to have a civilization here, after all.

If you know of other tips or rhetorical moves for giving constructive criticism, please feel free to share them in a comment below.

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3 responses to “Tips for giving constructive criticism on academic writing

  1. You could quite easily drop “on academic writing” from the title of this post; it’s applicable for any constructive criticism. (There, how is that for specific and imperative?)

  2. Carole Kennedy.

    I could have used these tips from day 1 of university. Very helpful!
    Carole Kennedy.

  3. Yes – very helpful. I particularly like the advice about using an imperative rather than a negative. Specificity is something I appreciate when receiving constructive criticism.

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