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Is the thing you need to learn from feedback… how to accept praise?

Feedback is useful for the bit of the writing process you find hard to generate for yourself. As a moderately experienced writer, you probably already have a good sense of what feels hard to you.

As an emerging research degree writer, your early months are often full of instructive feedback about where your drafts could be improved: maybe clarity, conciseness, tone, grammar or structure. You dutifully take note of the comments, and work to improve. Perhaps this is what brought you to this blog, or to one of my books.

However, there is an equally important aspect of feedback that you may be ignoring. And the fact that you are ignoring this feedback may be a warning sign that this is a significant area of weakness for you.

And that area is accepting positive feedback.

When you supervisor writes ‘good job’ in the margins, do you mentally skip that? If you get a review that is 75% positive but has some advice for changes, do you erase that 75%? Do you brush off compliments from editors?

It’s not at all surprising if you do this. Brains have a tendency to notice bad, dangerous, negative stuff.

In fact this negativity bias tends to impact supervisors and examiners too. It’s easy to pick out where things don’t work, and much harder to make myself notice where a text ‘just works’. This is why teachers and lecturers go to so many sessions training us to give positive feedback—it’s harder to do, so we need training!

Similarly, you may need training to hear and accept praise.

More importantly though, positive feedback often identifies where you should learn from yourself. I now try to frame my positive feedback to students as ‘keep doing this’ or ‘this is great, I wish you also did it over here’.

While it’s important to write in a way that avoids mistakes, it’s probably more important to write in a way that portrays your ideas as convincing, exciting, or original. Learning what readers enjoy and appreciate is essential to writing success.

It can be harder to identify your own good writing. A computer can tell you if you have spelled a word wrong, but only another human can tell you when you have made their day or changed their mind with your writing. This means opportunities for feedback are rarer, and so when you do get praise, cherish it. But also learn from it.

Write out specific comments about what you do well. Identify common words or themes. Maybe your academic writing is careful, comprehensive, elegant, or insightful at its best. Your most effective outreach writing might be wise, warm, witty or relatable. Note them. Start to do more of that!

It will take decades to fully absorb all of these positive lessons—not least because as you keep working on your writing, it keeps improving, and that means there are always new positive aspects to learn about.

So make sure you start early, and build up a good foundation of learning from your successes and paying careful attention to your supervisor’s praise as well as their criticisms.

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