Scholarly writing is a conversation with other academics. These conversations happen in formal venues such as academic journals and books, in less formal settings such as academic conferences and colloquia and in informal ways through the sharing of works in progress with colleagues. To be fully engaged with the conversation, it is crucial for academics to participate in all three of these sorts of exchanges.
In Print: Formal Conversations
If you are an academic with a faculty position that requires research productivity, I don’t have to tell you that you need to publish. This would have been made clear to you when you were hired, and you should have some sense of the requirements of your institution. There are all sorts of subtleties with regard to where and how much you need to publish, but you know you need to do it, somehow and somewhere.
Conferencing: Semi-Formal Conversations
You probably also know that you need to participate in conferences. Even if you find the idea of presenting your work at conferences terrifying or if you find academic conferences absolutely unbearable, you still have to do it, at least until you get tenure. Participating in conferences is crucial for attaining visibility in your field, learning about the latest trends in research, and getting feedback on your work in progress. It is very important to figure out what conferences you should attend and to make every effort to participate in them.
Sharing Work in Progress: Informal Conversations
Most new and aspiring academics know about the importance of conference participation and academic publishing, because they are visible aspects of faculty life: people put conference presentations and academic papers on their CVs. What is less visible, yet equally important, is sharing your work in informal ways with trusted colleagues. I would recommend never sending out an article or book chapter for publication without first obtaining feedback from someone you know and trust, and preferably from several people.
Getting feedback in informal ways is important because it allows you to share your work in a less polished form. If you don’t feel as if you are completely done with something, you will be more open to feedback and more willing to change your arguments and ideas on the basis of your reviewers’ suggestions.
In many cases, sharing your work can boost your confidence. We are often our own worst critics, and it can be a real pleasure to hear our colleagues point out how important and well-executed our work is. When you request informal feedback, you can expect honest advice on how to improve your work and finalize it for submission. Often, this will give you the final push you need to send your manuscript out for formal review.
Sharing your work is also important because it can save you lots of time in the peer review process. On average, peer reviews take about six months. You often can get a friend or colleague to read a paper for you and provide feedback in less than one month. (It is always important to agree on a time frame when you give a paper to a colleague for review to ensure that the process is in fact efficient.)
How to Get Feedback: Starting the Conversation
When I was in graduate school, I had no problem getting feedback on my work. Every seminar paper I handed in came back with comments; I could ask my advisor or other members of my committee for comments; and I also had my fellow graduate students on hand to ask for feedback. When I became a faculty member, it quickly became apparent to me that I needed to broaden my networks to continue to get useful feedback. There are several ways to do this.
Tit for Tat: Exchange work with a colleague
One of the best ways to get feedback from a colleague is to offer to exchange work. If both of you are at a similar stage, you can agree to meet somewhere for a morning, during which time you read each other’s drafts in one another’s presence and provide feedback that same morning. That sort of instantaneous feedback is unbeatable in terms of efficiency.
If you can’t find a friend who is at an identical stage as you, you also can ask someone to read something, with the promise that you will return the favor in the future. Many academics have close friends and colleagues with whom they have a permanent exchange relationship: they always read each other’s work at various stages of progress. The advantage to the exchange relationship is that you don’t feel as if you are posing a burden, as you know you will be returning the favor soon.
Form a Writing Group and Build Community in the Process
Another strategy is to form a writing group with colleagues who live near you. You can agree that, over the course of the semester, you will meet four times, and at each meeting, you will discuss one work in progress. This is not always the most efficient way to get feedback, but it is valuable for several reasons. First of all, the dynamics of group feedback are different from individual feedback, and you will get more in-depth and complex feedback than if you just have one reader. For this reason, this sort of group exchange is often best for work in an earlier stage of progress. Secondly, this sort of writing group helps to build community; building community is important for your mental well-being. Finally, it is good for you to know what others at your institution are up to, and it is important for them to have a good idea what you are working on. That way, if a speaker is invited to campus or if there is an initiative related to your work, you will be sure to be involved.
Everyone Does It!
Sharing your published work as well as your work in progress is crucial for any academic. If you need proof of how common this is, I suggest you open up any academic book or article and take a look at the long list of acknowledgements. Most books go on for two or three paragraphs in which the author thanks all of the people that have provided feedback during the writing progress. Most articles list a half a dozen people who have reviewed the work informally.
Whatever strategy you use, it is crucial for you to figure out a way to share your work informally with trusted friends and colleagues before going through the formal review process. It will make your work better, give you confidence in your writing, and save you time in the long run.