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Writing with Feedback on a Manuscript

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Using editor and reviewer feedback usually means using the same techniques you'd use when revising with instructor or peer feedback: rewrite, make a checklist, prioritize. Writers can get a sense of what feedback is asking them to do in revisions by rewriting the feedback in their own words; making a checklist of action items helps organize the feedback and pull out concrete tasks; and prioritizing checklist items according to importance helps writers create a structure for revising that makes sense for their priorities.

The difficulty with scholarly manuscript revisions is often that there are multiple sets of feedback from different reviewers, which can sometimes conflict. Editors often help prioritize comments from multiple reviewers by describing comments and giving more weight to some or specifically recommending disregarding others. If they don't, you can compare reviewer feedback and make your own best judgments about which revisions you'll make and which you won't. Criteria include fit in the journal or the discipline, appropriateness for the argument you're making, etc.; ultimately writers should remember that while peer reviewers are a valuable resource for developing scholarship, they are not the authors of your piece. You are!

Finally, make a list of changes you're planning to make after reviewing the feedback and share them with the editor — editors are often also resources to help you, since they know the journal best and are usually expert in the field.

Negotiating Conflicting Feedback

Sometimes reviewer feedback may differ significantly, creating challenges for writers revising their manuscripts. When feedback conflicts, there are a few particular strategies you can use to find a way forward:

  • Ask the editor.
Often the editor will have already given you some guidance in dealing with a set of conflicting comments, but if not, don't hesitate to ask — they may have some advice pertaining to what revisions would best fit in the journal's upcoming issues.
  • Ask a colleague or mentor.
Sitting down with someone you trust to talk over the feedback can help you decide which comments can help you develop a more robust manuscript.
  • Look for a middle ground.
Sometimes one reviewer may be complimentary while another may be overly critical. When reviewers have commented on the same areas in the manuscript, is there overlap between their opinions? This overlap may be a useful middle ground from which to revise. Or, if one reviewer is focused on a different set of concerns from the other reviewer, can both sets of feedback be useful in different ways?
  • Take emotion out of it.
This can be difficult, especially since many writers spend months or years with their manuscripts before submitting them, and since some reviewers give feedback with a clear emotional stance toward the argument or piece. But it's sometimes the case that reviewers' tone in their commentary can obscure what they are actually asking the author to revise; rewriting feedback in your own words can help you get at the essence of the commentary and find some middle ground or a starting place.

Prioritizing Feedback

Regardless of whether reviewers share the same opinion, writers will need to determine which changes are most important and which changes should be addressed first. Here are some strategies for prioritizing feedback:

  • Divide tasks into higher and lower order concerns.
Higher order concerns are more global changes such as modifications to the argument or content of the piece, changes to organization, or revisions to structural elements; lower order concerns are sentence-level issues such as edits to citation style or revisions to specific language. Because higher order concerns affect more of the writing, these are changes that should be made first; lower order concerns can be addressed later once the content is settled, to avoid wasting time.
  • Of the higher order concerns, determine which need multiple rounds of revision.
This is especially important if you are writing with co-authors and need to make sure each author approves of key changes — any concern that may need to be checked and re-checked should be addressed early in the revision process to avoid butting up against deadlines.
  • Check with the editor.
In many fields, acknowledging the feedback on a manuscript and sending a list of key changes the author/s will make is common practice. This helps keep your piece on the editor's radar, and ensures that the editor agrees with the assessments you've made about the feedback. It also tends to decrease the number of rounds of revision required before publication.

Responding to Feedback

Once writers have made a plan for revision, it's time to execute the plan. Here are some tips for keeping feedback and the review process in mind during revisions:

  • Use MS Word's Track Changes or a similar feature to visually link comments, action items, and relevant areas of the manuscript. If you're writing collaboratively, most word processing programs now allow you to tag a specific person in a comment and assign them tasks.
  • Keep a running log of changes using your changes list; usually this list includes: 1. the comment, summarized; 2. the original, perhaps shortened and usually with a location by page number or section; and 3. the revision, always with a location and sometimes shortened. This will help you with your letter when you submit the revised manuscript, and it will help keep track of what you have addressed to date.
  • Note in comments or in your change log any questions you have or alternate revisions you considered. This will help the editor and/or reviewers go over the new version of the manuscript, and can save you time if you're asked for more revisions.
  • If you are making a number of sentence-level changes, it may be most expedient to complete these changes with Word's markup on or in suggestion mode (Google Docs) — this way you aren't listing each tense change you made in a separate document, and the editor/reviewers can quickly see locations where you edited or revised.

Once revisions are done and you re-submit your manuscript, you'll usually need to include a letter describing what you changed, comment by comment. This is where these tips to help you keep a detailed account of your revision process will come in handy — you'll be able to use your own documentation as part of this letter.