How to Recover from Critical Feedback

“… kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” – Stephen King

It’s been a while since I last blogged a long post and the mere thought of it has been nagging at me. Honestly though, I’m at a bit of a loss for what to say. The PhD writing is hard, as expected, but it’s thrown me for a loop and I’ve been procrastinating like a motherfucker. In fact, this very post is me procrastinating! How meta. You known those situations where you feel like you have a long list of excuses but no good reasons? This is one of those times.

I’m procrastinating because I’m trying to avoid something difficult: editing my “Shitty First Draft”. I was previously angry at my supervisors because they weren’t giving detailed or useful feedback. This time, when I submitted what I thought was a pretty good chapter, I got it back with devastating criticism. “Your writing is hard to read”. “It’s too waffly”. “I couldn’t follow what was going on”. Some of the comments were useful but mostly they just cut me to the bone. It felt personal, ya know? It’s my writing, an embodiment of my thoughts, and now you’re telling me it’s shit and I need to cut it down by half?! They’re my words! They made sense to me! How can they be that hard to follow?

Editting while defensive is not an easy task, it turns out. I want to blame them for their delivery method and yet I’ve criticised them before for not giving me feedback at an earlier stage. What right do I have to complain about this, when they’ve given me the very thing I asked for? On the other hand, their delivery manner really did hurt. It was the gut punch you don’t see coming that knocks you to the floor. It put me out of my stride for two days and I’m still feeling the rippling aftershocks.

It probably doesn’t help that I’m not used to receiving criticism. Feedback as a student was generally minor – alter this sentence, tidy up your conclusion, whatever. It was never at the level of this is complete bunkum nowhere near the necessary standard. Which I interpret as “your work is shit ergo you are shit”. I know this is an example of “jumping to conclusions” and catastrophising but the jump happened so quickly, I felt the feelings of worthlessness and shame before I knew what hit me. All I know is that I felt awful and paralysed. And it’s bloody hard to start work when you’re sitting under that cloud.

I’m also bitter because “why coudln’t they have given me this feedback earlier in the process? For example, when I submitted a first draft of this chapter in Februrary?!” As if it would have been any easier to deal with the feedback in the past.

Yet it hurts that they could say such things about my writing, especially when up til now they’ve sung my praises for its quality. Or at least one of them did. My other supervisor is of the opinion that he was gravely mistaken in his estimation of my work. Now I suspect he’s just never bothered to read any of my previous reports in detail. In fact, he did say as he has no intention of reading anything in detail until he’s got all three results chapters in front of him. I didn’t comprehend when he said this originally but in hindsight it’s as clear as day. I’d say it’s unfair but from his point of view it’s not worth his time contributing til later, given how busy he is with Important Professor Stuff.

That would be fine if I had the slightest clue what I’m doing! As it is, I’ll be sending stuff out to the post-docs to read and see what they have to say.


I had the above written a week ago and oh how times change!

Editing is hard y’all, but much easier when you print the damn thing out and scrawl all over it in red pen and highlighters.

I realised I had precious little clue how to go about editing my work so I did what I do. I researched. Research Degree VoodooElements of Style and the Thesis Whisperer have been god-sends.

Reading over my print out, I realised it really was as waffly and unclear as my supervisor said. I’ve hunted through my paragraphs for my topic sentences and found that what I thought was obvious by implication was actually not that obvious. So I’ve put them in or re-arranged the paragraph to make the point clear. I’ve done a little bit of revserse outlining, making notes in the margin about what the point of the paragraphs are and then made sure to link them more clearly. I’ve cut out sections and figures that don’t add much from the reader’s point of view, but saved them for later in another folder because they are relevant to the work of people in the lab. And most importantly, I’ve signposted sections left, right and centre.

I realised part of the reason this particular chapter is long is because I’m asking part of it to do two things: 1/ establish that my chosen cell line was necessary and sufficient for this project, and 2/ establish the baseline data that will be the biological control for the topical culmination of the thesis. The work is essentially needed in two places at once so currently my answer has been to make reference to the work that’s coming up in the final results chapter. I think it will work, especially since there’ll be an overview of the thesis structure and narrative in the introduction. We’ll see how it goes.

The other thing that helped massively was looking at the sections of the chapter individually. The whole thing is over 40 pages and needs to be shorter and more compact by the time I’m done with it. Facing that all at once was a surefire to overwhelm myself with panic. A 10 page section? Much more managable! Typing the edits in is taking a while but it’ll get there, I think.

What about you? Any good links/ideas for speeding up the editing process?