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Man sits before computer and cup of coffee with a question mark coming out of his head

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I recently led a faculty writing retreat. During a discussion about sustaining writing momentum, we talked about the power of writers asking readers for feedback if they are stuck. Yet most writers were not comfortable sharing their work before it was “submission ready.” In our discussion they shared some version of the following:

  • “I’m embarrassed to share work before it’s ready.”
  • “How do I know when it’s ready?”
  • “What if I left out an important source? I don’t want to get dinged for it.”
  • “I like to anticipate every possible critique and respond to it in the paper before sending.”
  • “I didn’t get helpful comments the last time I shared my work.”
  • “Who would I ask to read it?”

I’ve been working with faculty writers for more than 12 years, in writing retreats, writing groups, consultations and coaching. Like those recent retreat participants, many don’t see readers as a resource in their writing process. They view them as a barrier or threat instead—a negative critique to anticipate, dreaded Reviewer No. 2 or that cruel reader who haunts us.

At best, it seems outside readers only invite ruminations about whether our work is good enough to show anyone. And so, we hold onto our writing longer, focusing on perfecting it and avoiding the sting of the negative review, rather than being open to what we might need to propel us forward.

But feedback can be an important and healthy part of the writing process. We don’t have to wait until we are at a late stage. And we don’t have to settle for just any feedback that’s offered.

Instead, we can cultivate readers for our work and build a network of readers that we can draw upon throughout our writing process. The goal: to find the right reader at the right time to move our work forward. We can ask for the feedback we need and prohibit what we don’t. If we think of feedback as a helpful network of readers we might tap into at different stages of our writing process, we increase our chances of getting feedback that keeps our writing moving—and that’s actually useful.

I’ve identified four steps for cultivating a network of readers for our work.

1. Assess what you need. To invite readers into our writing process, we first need to figure out what we need so we can ask for it. So before considering readers, ask yourself first: What do I need? Think not only about your writing but also about you, the writer. Begin by assessing the state of your writing. Ask yourself:

  • What am I working on and why?
  • What’s working in this draft so far?
  • Where am I stuck?
  • How might a reader help?

Think about what you need at this moment in your work. Do you need to sort out a messy draft? You might need a peer reader rather than a high-stakes reader who’s evaluating your work. Do you need to figure out if your methodology section makes sense? You might need a co-author who’s working on a separate section.

What you need now may not be the same as what you needed in graduate school or, say, before you were a principal investigator on a grant, became department chair or had to start caring for children or parents. So whenever you invite people to read your work, start by thinking about who might actually help you, not who “should.”

Sometimes the mentors for our research or those readers we most admire in our field actually stall us. In The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, Felicia Rose Chavez illustrates the harm and silencing effect the wrong readers and mentors can have, particularly for BIPOC writers, and the importance of readers (and writing spaces) that nourish and help writers claim their own voice, rather than reproduce their mentor’s.

Perhaps you have a good reader in mind, but they like to give advice or tell you who else you should read or cite. If that’s not what you need, save that reader for a later draft when you are synthesizing or trying to anticipate different points of view. Think of readers as resources during different phases of your writing. For example:

  • Cheerleader. Do you need them just to cheer you on? To remind you that you know things and that others want to hear what you have to say? Maybe you’re so used to critics that it’s hard to trust your gut as a writer. So you spin and spin and imagine every possible objection readers might have. You qualify so much that you have nothing left to say.
  • Late-stage editor. Do you need someone just to spot the typos, help you revise for clarity and conciseness, or try out some title possibilities? Are you too close to your work and need a reader with more distance?

2. Identify who might help. When trying to identify whom to ask, think back to when readers have been most helpful in your work. When you got useful feedback, what happened? Who gave it, and what were you working on? When has feedback been least helpful? What happened? Now, make a list of potential readers who might help you with your current project. Organize by reader strengths, in relation to your own work, to help you identify readers as resources when you might need them most:

  • Who are my early-stage readers? Who can help when I’m stuck in the muck?
  • Who are my midstage readers? Who can help me when I’m mostly there but need help synthesizing or organizing the muck?
  • Who are my late-stage readers? Who can help me clean up the muck?
  • Who are my cheerleaders? (You need them. It’s OK. Let them cheer you on.)
  • Who’s in my field that I trust to give informed, constructive feedback?
  • Who’s in my field I trust to ask, “Is this ready for release to _________?”
  • Who else (peers, family members, friends, professional coach or editor)? For what?

Over time, as you learn to identify what you need and to find who might help, you will develop a network of readers. Your list can help you assess not just who can give you valuable feedback but also how and when they can provide it. So for now, identify who that person might be for your current project.

3. Ask for the help you need. Instead of just hoping for helpful feedback (“Tell me what you think”), guide your readers. You’ll be more likely to get what you need. Here are the key elements to include when you request feedback:

  • Orient the reader to your work. Don’t share the draft without giving the person some context and a specific mission. To help them help you, provide a brief statement about the context and the purpose of the draft. For example: "This is an early draft of an article on X. I’m writing it because … I am hoping to submit it to a peer-reviewed journal by ____.” Or, “This is the methods section for a chapter in …” If relevant, include the parameters and criteria for the text, such as page limit, genre format and evaluation standards.
  • Name what you need from your reader. Be as specific as you can, so readers know how to be helpful to you. Tell them what you don’t need as well. Here are some examples of good approaches to asking for feedback.

Your request How it helps

My top three concerns are …Focuses readers’ attention to what you most need.
Help me choose the strongest example in the discussion section.Points readers to a specific place and gives them a task.
I’m trying to figure out the frame here. Could you suggest some possibilities? Shows you are still in the generative phase and need a big picture reading.
Which of these claims is the strongest/most supported …?Helps you see how readers are interpreting your argument and what they may need more/less of.
Is this idea a book or an article?Asks readers to help you assess scope.
I need to cut half of this content. Could you tell me which parts are most and least engaging as you read?Gives readers a clear purpose (cutting) and how they can help you make decisions.

In Sharing and Responding, Peter Elbow and Patricia Belanoff offer a range of strategies for getting useful reader feedback. Two strategies the writers I work with find helpful include asking readers to write a summary statement, which can help you see what main ideas are coming forward, or to tell you what’s missing: “What is almost said?”

  • Share the timeline. Let them know when you need it, and ask if that’s doable. Also, you don’t have to share a full draft. Sharing a few pages of a section that’s giving you trouble might allow for faster turnaround time than a full draft.
  • Offer to give feedback on their writing in the future. Reciprocity is key to establishing rapport.

Naming what you need positions you as an active participant in the feedback process. And when you receive that reader feedback, remember you get to decide what to do with it. (Sometimes you might want to ignore it.) Always remember to ask yourself, is my writing moving forward? Is this reader actually helping me with my work?

4. Develop your network. When you think of your list of potential readers as a network, you avoid burning out a select few (or one) go-to readers for everything you might need and, instead, get the right reader at the right time. One writer I work with exchanges drafts with a scholar who disagrees with her work. They decided to be resources for each other and in conversation during the writing process. This kind of reciprocity is key to developing a sustainable network of readers. Ask yourself, what kind of reader am I? When can I be most useful in the process? Put yourself in the reader network.

As writers, we are part of a scholarly ecosystem. We know the peer-review system is struggling. Many of us submit our work at a late stage and wait and wait. If we create networks of mutual support, we can empower each other as both readers and writers. Maybe we’ll get our work out sooner. Maybe we’ll stay more engaged with conversations in our fields. Maybe we’ll get better at quieting (or choosing when to ignore) Reviewer No. 2. Maybe when we serve as peer reviewers, we’ll give more efficient and effective feedback that writers can use. Maybe we’ll avoid becoming Reviewer No. 2.

Readers can be resources for writers, not just evaluators. They can be a part of the process by helping us stay engaged with our work, feel supported and make progress. As writers, we have a role to play in getting feedback that’s useful, not just affirming or critical. Writing does not have to be a solitary activity. If we are stuck, we can tap into a network. Let’s help each other write our way out.

Jennifer Ahern-Dodson is an associate professor of the practice in writing studies at Duke University. She directs the Faculty Write Program and leads writing retreats for universities and for organizations including North Carolina Campus Engagement and the Central New York Humanities Corridor. In collaboration with Monique Dufour, she offers workshops on how to apply writing retreat insights to teaching.

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