An early draft is a fragile flower

By the time your academic writing is ready to be published, it’s a tough nut, a rose hip, a thick-skinned firm grapefruit. It’s ready to be handled (perhaps a little roughly), to be carried about in a lunch bag, to be prized open and segmented and turned into the seeds of new research in other soils. In short it’s work of maturation is complete, and rigorous critique will only help it on the next stage of its life cycle.

An early draft, by contrast, is a fragile flower. It’s soft petals are just beginning to open around some fine stamens, and pollen lighter than air. 

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Broadbeans in flower in my veggie patch. 

If you crush a flower at this stage, its petals bruise and fall off. If it isn’t pollinated at just the right time, in just the right way, no fruit will set. A badly timed frost, hailstorm or strong wind can damage the blossom so there is no crop that season. 

When someone asks for feedback on an early draft, then, keep it a light touch. Make general, big picture comments, and do so kindly. Gently redirect wandering arguments. Gesture to the places the fruit will grow. Suggest some netting or sunshade to protect the blossoms as they develop. Do not criticise the early flower for not looking like a finished fruit. Do encourage the flower with warm encouragement and some judicious cross-pollination. Feed the flower with helpful praise and resolve potential pests and diseases. Give it time. Expect the fruit only in due season.

Once the fruit is setting, then it might be a good idea to thin the crop to encourage bigger fruits and avoid overtaxing the tree. Don’t forget that a few, excellent, prize-winning fruits are more valuable than many small, lumpy and underripe ones. You may need to protect the growing fruit from predators, and warn against trying to eat it unripe. Keep offering warm encouragement and sunlight.

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A lemon from my lemon tree. 

When the fruit is ready, harvest it and share the bounty. This is the time for robust book reviews, critical citations, teaching and unpacking the work. Learn from the writing of others, and use it to help your own writing grow, and new ideas to flourish.

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