Building Your Academic Feedback Loop with Critical Friends

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No matter how old you are or what stage of your academic career you find yourself in, identifying the best method of giving and receiving constructive criticism can be a minefield. When you pour your heart and soul into your research, it can be daunting to present it to others. You feel protective of your work, and even though you know that feedback is essential to improving it, criticism—even constructive criticism—can be painful to hear. 

You are likely accustomed to receiving feedback from people in a more senior position or from those assessing your work for publication. That type of critique is considered a necessary evil. Even a veteran scholar can feel humiliated after receiving criticism from such authoritative sources, so it can be beneficial to put your paper through some more casual rounds of critique before you go big. To get feedback that could help you grow personally and professionally, run your work by editors and proofreaders (not only to ensure your paper contains no spelling and grammatical errors but also has proper style, cohesion, clarity, and flow), and then tap your critical friends.

What is a critical friend?

A critical friend is exactly what it sounds like—a friend you turn to for honest feedback on your academic work. If you’re preparing a paper for a journal, a grant application, a scholarly article, or even a rewrite of your CV, a critical friend can tell you what is working and what requires improvement. You need advice, and if you have been burning the midnight oil on a regular basis, you might not have the objectivity necessary to move forward with your project. Besides, as the author, you are inherently subjective, and it’s easy to overlook careless errors or ambiguous explanations. It never hurts to get a fresh perspective on important work; in fact, it’s all but mandatory if you want to produce an impactful academic paper.

A critical friend is not just any friend to whom you hand your writing for review. They need to be honest and know how to effectively deliver constructive criticism. How do you know which of your friends are “critical friends”?

What are the traits of a critical friend?

The right critical friend will be honest when you’re doing a great job, but at the same time, they won’t be afraid to tell you when something is not working, even if it’s difficult for you to hear. Being comfortable enough with one another to be perfectly candid is a cornerstone of a critical friendship. Besides, your friend should know you well enough to be able to gently deliver necessary feedback that you don’t want to hear—it will sound much better coming from your friend’s mouth than that of your superior.

Your critical friends should be people you admire and respect on both a personal and an intellectual level. Ideally, they will have at least a basic understanding of your field, but unless your paper is highly technical, even a friend familiar with only academic writing and principles will be helpful in most cases. A critical friend will not rip your work to shreds, nor will they blindly praise it—an important balance that makes the review process a little less intimidating.

Remember: A relationship like this is reciprocal. This is not your mentor—this is a peer who will accept feedback in return, and you should be prepared to offer it. Practice giving the same sort of honest and helpful criticism that you want to receive.

What are the elements of constructive criticism?

Critiquing someone’s work goes deeper than merely giving your opinion. Though some of these pointers may seem obvious, it never hurts to group them together for easy revisiting. Feedback should be:

  • Objective (It must be based in fact and come from someone detached from the work—your friend will certainly have their own biases, but an outsider’s perspective will do your paper a world of good.)
  • Motivating (It should keep you moving forward and boost your confidence, but any praise must be genuine to be effective.)
  • Productive (It should not only tell you what’s wrong but also offer suggestions for fixing the issues—even if you reject the suggestions, they can provide inspiration.)
  • Specific (It should give your work the attention to detail it deserves—while your friend’s overall opinion can also be helpful, generic feedback is not particularly valuable.)
  • Honest (It should maintain trust and steer you in the right direction—without honesty, none of the other qualities will be as effective.)

How can you find a good group of critical friends?

Unfortunately, there is no watering hole where the Critical Friends Club gathers, eagerly welcoming new members every week. However, many of your peers and colleagues are potential critical friends. In fact, you may already have a whole untapped network of critical friends who would be happy to offer feedback on your articles or manuscripts provided that you’re willing to return the favor. 

You don’t need to be “friends” per se—you should just have an amicable and respectful relationship. Start asking around your department or email an old collaborator. Attend workshops and professional development seminars. If you branch out, you can begin cultivating your critical friend network in no time. You might find that others are looking for the exact same thing.

If none of your critical friends are answering the phone or you need feedback faster than your busy colleagues can provide it, check out our proofreading and editing service. Our experts do more than eliminate typos and grammar blunders—they can also identify unclear writing, awkward structures, poor flow, and other issues preventing your paper from reaching its full potential.

How do you maintain your network?

Once you’ve tapped into your network and found the right people, you will need to nurture these relationships, just as you would any others. Stay in touch and be honest about your expectations. Get a cup of coffee and interact beyond emailing attachments back and forth. The relationships with your critical friends should be supportive and mutual—they should never be transactional or manipulative. Do not “keep score” of how many times one has helped the other—keep it respectful and on an as-needed basis.

Also, try not to lean on your critical friends too much—perhaps not every draft needs critique, but every third one might. If you’re fortunate enough to have built a large network, rely on different critical friends based on their skill sets and areas of expertise, and rotate your favors so there is no risk of burnout and no one is taken advantage of. Besides, gathering feedback from multiple sources opens you up to even more perspectives and can help you further polish your paper.

If you would like to expand your network of critical friends by branching out from academia into industry, get a professional to rewrite your CV

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