Working with Feedback (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the GradFund Throwback Thursday blog series.  Each week we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past. If you are interested in learning more about research grants and fellowships to support your graduate study, be sure to visit the GradFund Knowledgebase.

Revision is the hardest part of the proposal writing process for some people. The prospect of learning how to manage feedback from multiple sources and combine them into a coherent next draft can be daunting. Figuring out how to weigh different types of feedback, and make sure your ego doesn’t get stung during the revision process, can be one of the most challenging parts of the process – we’re here to help make it a little bit easier.

Who should you solicit feedback from?

You should ask for feedback from a number of different sources – people you trust both to respect your ideas and also to give you honest criticism. I’ve learned that I need three sources of feedback: experts at the art of proposal writing, experts in my field, and people from outside of the academy. For experts at the art of proposal writing, I rely on GradFund (of course!). For experts in my field, I rely on my advisor, the other members of my committee, and close friends in my department who are part of my informal writing circle. My writing circle is willing to read early drafts and messy outlines, and they will also often be harder on me than my advisor will. For advice from people outside of the academy, I turn to my brother and a small group of friends I’ve known since college. They can often identify sentence level errors, sloppy mistakes, and larger assumptions embedded in your discipline that experts overlook.

Of course, everyone’s writing community is different. Many people get a lot of mileage out of forming writing groups with folk in neighboring disciplines – so a physicist, a chemist, and a botanist, or a psychologist, a political scientist, and a sociologist might share a core understanding of research but bring a diversity of perspectives to the conversation. Making it fun (talking about writing over lunch or happy hour) and making it reciprocal (being willing to look at things for the people in your writing circle, even at the last minute) can preserve those relationships, and make you feel less uncomfortable about asking people for favors.

For some proposals, there may be a tiered review process. For example, it may be read by subject experts and regional experts, or by an expert in your field and then by a multidisciplinary panel. Once you know who the review committee will be, seek feedback from individuals that reflect the makeup of the review committee.

When should you ask for feedback and what should you do once you have it?

It can be a good strategy to stagger when you show the writing to different people, such as showing early drafts to a writing group, middle drafts to an advisor and GradFund, and final drafts to outside readers. However, you’re still dealing with multiple comments on multiple drafts and it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

One strategy is to separate the different types of comments. Go through and make the small changes first – quickly evaluate the suggestions regarding grammar, phrasing, and sentence structure, and decide what to change and what to keep the same. This will leave only the substantive comments, which tend to be take more time and are easier to do on a cleaner document.

Your reviewers are likely to read far more quickly than your friends and colleagues do. Even if you’re asking people to read with a critical eye, they’re still doing so because they’re invested in you personally and professionally, which your reviewers are not. With that in mind, if people say something is unclear, it probably is – take seriously places that multiple people have problems, and figure out how to clean it up so that there is no room for a reviewer to get confused and frustrated.

Often if you have multiple, conflicting pieces of advice about a given section, sentence, paragraph, or argument, it’s because something has gone wrong between what you’re trying to say and what you’re actually saying. In this case, the advice itself might not be as important as the signal you need to do something. The message “this doesn’t work” might be more important than the content “fix this somehow.” Sometimes, though, you will receive genuinely conflicting pieces of advice, which will likely leave you feeling stumped, torn, and frustrated. As you navigate the different feedback, remember the sources, and try to put it into context of what you know about the funder. When advice conflicts, ask follow up questions – don’t be afraid to ask your advisor for help adjudicating the mixed messages. That can also be a good role for your writing group of experts and near-experts. If you can say to them “I wrote x, my advisor thinks y, and my other committee member says z – where do I go from here,” they can often see a way to square a circle, compromise on what the different options are, or find another way out of the pickle.

Most importantly, don’t lose sight of the core of the project. Any proposal is telling a story about you as a scholar and your work, and it’s easy to get so bogged down making everyone happy that you lose track of the core of that story. Make sure that your proposal maintains an internal coherence. Remember that there are multiple paths to a great application – you just have to pick the one that is best for you, your project, and the funder’s goals.

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