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Writing in Graduate School: Making Sense of Feedback

Core Programs welcomes guest writers to our newsletters – UW students, staff, and faculty.  Since it is the time of year where many of you are working hard on your writing, we invited Dr. Karen Rosenberg, UW alum and director of the UW Bothell Writing and Communication Center, to share some guidance with you.  

Getting feedback on our writing is a key part of graduate school (and, for many of us, life well beyond).  Sometimes that feedback is exactly what we need: it stretches our thinking; it confirms that the path we’re bushwhacking is gorgeous and useful; and it sharpens our tools as we continue the journey.  When we get this feedback, we know how to course correct and how to forge our way ahead.  Thank your professors and study what works about their feedback – hopefully we can use our intellect and spirit to support others down the line.

Sometimes the feedback on our writing isn’t great, but it isn’t terrible either.  It doesn’t rock our world with its insights, but we’ve been muddling along all right for a while now and the feedback serves as a green light to keep going.

But sometimes–whether intentional or not–the feedback hurts. It takes the wind out of our sails. It makes us doubt ourselves.  In one form or another, this has happened to many of us who have gone through graduate school (that is, jumped through all of the hoops we have jumped through to be in our current predicament of getting painful feedback on our writing).  So we might as well talk about it.

First, remember that we are getting feedback on one piece of writing, not on us as writers (and certainly not as whole, beautiful, complex people).  This sounds so utterly obvious, yet it bears a reminder every now and again.  We are not our writing.

Second, in the UW Bothell Writing and Communication Center where I work, we repeat the mantra: writing is never done, it’s just due.  So once we have tended to the sting of the fraught feedback, we can see if we can scavenge any useful bits from it, bits that enable us to revise our work…literally to see it again.

Before we get there, it helps to tend to the sting.  I don’t know what it feels like for you (and often I haven’t known what is has felt like for me, because when I was in graduate school I sought to distance myself from my feelings in a misguided effort to become more ‘academic’).  But during my 8 years directing the Writing and Communication Center, I’ve spent time thinking about what helps and hurts in responding to others’ writing.  Here are some tips to tend to the sting and then use the feedback to move forward:

  1. Read all of the feedback.
  2. Identify what you’re feeling. Shame? Anger? Despair? Nothing?  You don’t have to do anything with these feelings except acknowledge them and, if you can, sit with them.  Over time, this can help us receive the feedback in a less personal way.
  3. Step away for a while. Get some distance.
  4. Find your people. Seek out friends, family, and colleagues who can help you get in touch with your voice, your gifts, and your most vital reasons for being in grad school.
  5. Use your resources.  Schedule a writing tutor appointment at the Bothell, Tacoma, or Seattle campus.  And check out these online writing resources curated by the UWB Writing and Communication Center, UWT Teaching and Learning Center, and UWS Odegaard Writing and Research Center.
  6. Return to the feedback.  What’s useful about it?  What productive questions does it open up? Make a list of questions to discuss with your professor.
  7. Reject feedback that questions your right to be in academia.  For example, Latinx student Tiffany Martinez writes about a professor who circled the word “hence” on her paper with the comment “this is not your word.”  She rejects the feedback, describes the sting, and doesn’t let it derail her from academic path.
  8. Talk to your professor and make sure you have a clear sense of your next steps – ones that feels authentic to your voice and your goals for being in graduate school.

Many thanks and gratitude to Dr. Karen Rosenberg for writing this edition of the Core Programs graduate student newsletter.