On rejecting feedback

When we first get critical feedback our writing, often our first instinct is instinctively to reject it all. Over time, we learn not to listen to that first reaction, and to give ourselves time and space to revisit the feedback in a more receptive frame of mind. I’ve previously written a whole book on how to understand and implement feedback (How to Fix your Academic Writing Trouble with Inger Mewburn and Shaun Lehmann),

And yet, that doesn’t mean that we have to convince ourselves to mindlessly accept every suggestion that has been made. Whether the feedback is from supervisors, peer reviewers, editors or examiners—at the end of the day, you are still the author and need to take the final responsibility of expert authorship. That means you should know more about your text than anyone else on the planet—more about the content, and more about how it was written. You are getting advice and support from reviewers, editors and supervisors, but you need to take the leadership role.

You might worry that examiners and reviewers will outright reject your work if you don’t accept every single piece of feedback, but I can tell you from experience, that is not true. I first had to learn how to reject feedback for my PhD examination, and have used the same skills to deal with journal articles, monographs and how-to books. It’s not IF you accept the feedback, it’s HOW you reject it that will matter in deciding whether the final piece is acceptable.

What do I mean by that? Well, if you huffily refuse to consider any changes at all, because your work is perfect… but the examiners thought there were serious issues… then you won’t pass. and If you accept some changes but don’t seem to address some others, you may or may not get through. But if you take the following advice, reasonable reviewers will accept the changes you did make and understand the changes you chose not to make.

Some things to keep in mind if you are planning to reject feedback:

  1. Always keep the tone neutral and respectful. Wait until you aren’t reacting out of frustration, hurt feelings or disappointment to write the feedback responses.
  2. Express gratitude to the reviewers for their effort of giving feedback, even if it isn’t what you wanted to hear.
  3. List out any significant praise, and demonstrate how you have built on those strengths.
  4. Always provide evidence for why you are rejecting the feedback. Are you taking the other reviewer’s suggested approach? Is it in the style guide? Was it agreed in a meeting with the series editor?
  5. Remember that where feedback is based on a misunderstanding or misreading—that’s your fault for not being clear enough. If the reviewer has misunderstood your point, their feedback solution might not work, but you need to make other changes to explain yourself better.
  6. Keep it high level in the cover email / table. The place to explain why you rejected a specific semi-colon on page 178 belongs in the track changes.

Authors are often encouraged to set out their responses to feedback with a series of dot points or a table, with their comments and your responses. What does such a table look like? If all examiners or reviewers are giving consistent feedback, then you probably only need one ‘feedback’ column, and one ‘response’ column.

However, if (as happened to me and a co-author recently) the two reviewers have radically different points, then you might need two feedback columns. This helped us to show a nuanced approach of sometimes accepting the more critical feedback, sometimes taking sides with the more positive review, and sometimes synthesising both. This would be very helpful in supervision teams where different supervisors have very different views about how your project should progress, or have very different disciplinary backgrounds.

A (shortened and anonymised) version of the table we sent in response to reviewers comments:

Reviewer 1Reviewer 2 Author response/action
Concern that four chapters of the work have been previously publishedNotes that bringing together these works is of valueSynthesising R1 and R2: Updated signposting to explain the collection across art forms is important aspect of the value of the book. Agreed with editor and series editor.  
Introduction and conclusion lack integration of argumentFelt the book was coherentAgree with R1: significantly extended the introduction (especially pp.4–8) and slightly extended the conclusion (esp. p. 198) to better set out and integrate the argument across the volume. Added clearer signposting across the chapter introductions, highlighted in green. 
Lack of updated literature reviews. Some secondary literature referenced too lightly.Happy with the literature coverage. Agree with R1: significantly extended the literature review in the Introduction,  the introductions to chapters 1 and 2, the second half of chapter 4, and in the close readings of chapter 5, with smaller updates throughout.  Highlighted in green in the attached document.
Some material has been covered elsewhere, particularly on imagesThe woodcuts material is well addressed elsewhere (but needs to be included for the sake of completeness) but the theory of images is new.Agree with R2: the theory of images is new, and we have clarified this more clearly (especially at p.90ff). We agree that the woodcuts material has been very widely discussed, have added more citations to acknowledge this. Agree with R1:  the book was written before XXX was published, and  we cover similar ground, so have updated the chapter to include reflect the contribution of the new book, and where we differ. 
Suggests there is a lack of original argument.Notes that the work is unusually comprehensive, and expands the current debate by including drama. Synthesising R1 and R2: We agree that we did not clearly enough set out the purpose and value of the book, which we have more clearly explained in the extended introduction and conclusion.
Does not require major copy editingSome typographical errorsSynthesising R1 and R2: We  plan a full copy edit by an external editor before final submission.

If you are using dot points instead, then the strategies and tone are almost identical, you are just formatting the content slightly differently.

We also used highlighting in the actual text to make it easy for the reviewers and editor to scroll through our (very long!) academic book manuscript and see where we had made changes, and how extensive those changes were. It’s always helpful to be able to check if you have actually made the changes you said you would!

I hope this post helps you to think about how to decide when you will accept or reject feedback, and how to explain it to examiners or reviewers, so that they are willing to pass or publish your work, even if you didn’t do everything they told you to!

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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