Sorry I’ve been away so long – visitors, travels, and work business has eaten away the time.
As it is that time of year where a lot of people are getting feedback from NIH and other agencies about why they didn’t get funding I thought I would talk a little bit about taking criticism and using it wisely.
You’ve handed your written document to your advisor, and he has made edits and comments all over it. You probably are cringing and hanging you head in shame – especially if you handed over a first draft of your paper. You feel devastated and frustrated. Not sure what they want. Wondering why you bothered to write anything in the first place if they were just going to rewrite the whole thing for you anyways. So you accept the changes, glance over the comments, presume they made all the changes they wanted, and then you send the paper back to them. Immediately you get an irate email saying you didn’t take any of their help under consideration, nor did you address the comment made. . . Sound familiar?
SO, what went wrong?
You forgot the learning process, and that whoever your editor/mentor/boss/PI isn’t going to do ALL the work for you. You let your hurt feelings (or ego) get in your way and didn’t really absorb what all those marks meant. This means you didn’t take the helpful editing notes and comments they made and apply them throughout the paper**. Therefore, the draft you sent back if falling way short of what they expected you to do. In fact they may be reading some of their own comments you left in the paper.
How should you view the paper, and what your editor wants you to know/do?
Remember this is a learning opportunity. Regardless if you are getting edits from your PI or comments for a review panel, you need to read and absorb these what changes are made or what is said. In terms of an edited paper, I rarely edit the entire paper someone hands me (unless they are paying me to, or it is a final proofing read). It is (usually) not my job to rewrite the entire paper for the person (especially student prospectus and dissertation sections!!!). I am there to help facilitate them in learning how to improve their writing. Therefore, I often edit one entire section, and then the first paragraph or respectable chunk of each of the following sections. This is intended to help them see where their main writing issues are in the hopes they will apply it to the rest of the paper. This doesn’t mean that I — or your mentor — doesn’t read the whole thing! I still make comments on major editorial issues or content issue throughout the entire document, but I’m not redoing the whole thing. Part of the reason I do this is I respect that each person has their own style and cadence. I don’t want to remove the essence of the person who wrote the paper, just improve it.
Therefore, remember to take a deep breath and calm yourself when you get the edits and comments back. Read the entire paper and comments through, and think to yourself, “How can I improve on what I’ve written and incorporate their comments and edits”. Then work on the rewrite. Don’t just accept any comment or edit they make, because more often than not you will find they may reedit a sentence they themselves wrote in your paper on their second read! Take the comments and apply it throughout the whole paper with especial attention to how the sentences they rewrote flow and how transitions are made.
If you have grant reviewer comments:
When you are getting comments back on a grant get past your disappointment of not getting the funding, and read through what they said. I always find this part hard, because you feel you really put the best design out there and your best writing effort, but admit it we all know there are things we could have changed, tightened up, or designed better. Take your sarcastic and angry read through their comments first (this can be very cathartic!!!):
“Are you KIDDING ME!! You want me to do TWICE the research with half of funds you would give me?!”
“You are an idiot?!?! I explained that in this other section!”
“You clearly don’t understand how research works, or the limitations of time and money!!”
“If you think that is a better way of doing it, maybe you should do it!”
“I’m not Macgyver – I can’t make something from nothing”
Then, take a deeeeeep breath and read it through again. Take notes as you do this, as this will help you write a response letter. Note if what they want, such as a major redesign, a misinterpretation of what you said, or a request for a little more pilot data to support what you are claiming. They want to make sure they are making a sound investment, and not just throwing their money into a hole. Yes, it might seem like this means they want to see most of the project done before they fund you, but really they want you to prove that the project has a good chance at the success you predict.
** Caveat – I admit not all mentors/PIs/etc are the best editors, may not make a lot of comments on your paper, or will ignore or forget that you handed them something all together (see below). Make sure you find someone who can edit your paper… see earlier posts for suggestions of using your peers to help edit.