Writing Wednesday: embracing criticism for book revisions

24 October 2018, 1734 EDT

Many a postdoc are likely in my position this year, dissertation defense safely in the review mirror and settling into the groove of their research. Those who, like me, are fortunately enough to have the very civilized two-year appointment rather than the barbaric one-year, time and attention can be allocated more judiciously. Still, that does not mean the last few months has been easy. In many ways it is more difficult than before because the only guidance for my project comes from what I can discover and the only deadlines are those which I set. Writing a proposal is a protracted process, but worth doing sooner rather than later.

What makes this process different than writing a dissertation prospectus is that the project is already in shape, but I am more aware of its limits and unknowns. When I wrote my prospectus, I had a vague notion that there was a relationship between religion and grand strategy. But I did know which would become the causal variable, and which the explanatory. Though there was much written about religion and foreign policy from historians, there was scant available written by political scientists; and therefore, little could be found about the causal mechanism between them. My project was necessarily ambitious: scholars of religion do not talk about realpolitik, grand strategy, and national securit—nor, except rarely, do any of the aforementioned scholars investigate religion. (Though, see Jack Snyder’s wonderful little edited volume.)

Now I’m looking at completed project but is in need of a major revision. The dissertation has two empirical chapters that really should be four, the theory chapter has kernels of insight but could benefit from a thorough reworking if not a complete re-write. But how do I know that? Better still, how do I know which sections are disastrous and which are good, maybe even brilliant? The truth is that until I started presenting my work, I didn’t. Earlier this year I presented a chapter at the Notre Dame International Security Center Emerging Scholars in Grand Strategy Conference. The team that Mike Desch provided invaluable feedback for the work. I have upcoming conferences this fall to do the same.

But I do not think this is the only way to get critical feedback. I mentioned that William Germano last week. Again, I’d like to refer readers to another passage:

If they [your committee] are the only people who have read your dissertation, ask someone else to read it. You needn’t ask Aunt Betty—a fellow PhD will do—but don’t choose someone with whom you have been trading chapter drafts in the library or someone who was in your dissertation seminar.

Germano advises that you get someone who will really say what they get or don’t, what stands out as repetitive or redundant, and what just became incessantly boring. I think this advice startles many PhDs, especially but only those who are new to the doctorate ranks. This might be a tall ask if you’re new to a department and don’t know many people there. But do yourself a favor and ask someone. Perhaps there’s another postdoc in your field or in another department writing on related topics. Do it. Most of the obstacles at this stage of my project are psychological. The overcoming of the fear of asking someone to read your work, is psychological. The need to be ruthless, ruthless to your dissertation in order to make a better final product is also psychological.

Everything here must by some measure be old hat for some readers. I think, however, that far many more succumb to a variant of impostor syndrome and convince themselves that their project is not worth doing, or worth doing well. I’m not immune to impostor syndrome, but thanks to having worked in places where ego is deadly, it rarely has prevented me from internalize feedback to make course corrections. What I learned from those previous experiences is that adapting to criticism is a habit and that it can be learned through repeated practice. Aristotle was right when he said virtue was a habit.

The point in all this is get Unfiltered Feedback. I can’t overstate how good Inframethodology blog is on writing. It’s really damn good. Here’s a piece from the linked post. Find someone to read one, and only one paragraph you’ve been working on. Ask them for 10 minutes. Then, if they agree, do the following:

  1. Read the paragraph out loud to you.
  2. Identify the key sentence.
  3. Tell you whether you are trying to support, elaborate or defend it.
  4. Say whatever else they think about it, whether in terms of content or form, everything from your thinking to your spelling.

Here’s the kicker. All this takes place in 9 minutes. Then, when the timer is up, sit together in silence for a minute. Just sit there. (I know someone reading this is feeling squirmy just thinking about it—I know I did.) Don’t say anything in reply. Don’t defend your work, thank them for the feedback, just sit there. When it’s over, you go back to your day.

Notice the psychology at work. You’re getting raw, unfiltered feedback, and you’re learning to quiet all those demons who say you’re work is great (or garbage). You have to be comfortable with the discomfort. And while you cannot do this with every single paragraph you write, it the process does teach you to approach your next writing session from a stronger mental place than you did previously.

So, what’s the takeway? Get feedback, get it regularly, and keep on writing.