Break Out of Your Lack-of-Feedback Loop

[This post originally appeared at ProfHacker.]

Does this ever happen to you? Let’s say you’re writing an article or a chapter. It’s taking longer than you anticipated. (No surprise there.) Your editor or your dissertation advisor, or maybe just your writing group, is expecting to read a draft, but you think it’s not ready. It’s incomplete, it’s tentative, it doesn’t adequately review the secondary literature, it doesn’t take into account a source you haven’t read yet. So you put off sending out your work. Then another opportunity comes around to share your work. But in the intervening month, your draft hasn’t improved as much as you’d hoped, and surely your readers’ expectations have been raised. So you put off sending out your work until you’re convinced that your readers’ expectations are so high that you can’t show them your draft until the draft is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize.

This scenario probably describes the writing life of too many graduate students and, I suspect, many other writers even after graduate school. But it’s an amateur mistake.

You show your work in progress to other people because it’s not good enough. It’s not good enough in ways that you know about, and it’s probably not good enough in ways that you don’t know about. Other readers can help you work through those problems because they come to your work not having seen it before. Your drafts will probably come back covered in the proverbial red ink.

But comments and corrections, as helpful as they are, aren’t the most useful result of sharing your work. Letting other people read your draft leads to a eureka moment: people are interested in your work. They want to read it, and they might even ask to read more of it, which you will then have to write.

I’m convinced that the hardest part about writing academic work is the lack of an audience, or more precisely, the long gap between the time you start writing and the time your readers start reading. Perhaps some people write to please themselves, but I doubt too many monographs are completed that way. Writers write for readers. And if every time you sit at your desk, creeping doubt reminds you that no one will read your work for six months or six years, if ever, it’s really hard to get good work done.

On the other hand, there is no greater encouragement for writing than knowing that people are reading your prose. Even just a handful of readers can drive you to write more and better prose, with more pleasure.

Here are a few ways you can break out of your lack-of-feedback loop. You could send your writing group the first half of a chapter, rather than feeling obligated to send the whole thing or nothing at all. You could write up a précis of your draft, and ask for comments on the big picture. Or you could write up select portions of your work for public audiences. Recently I’ve been posting vignettes or methodological musings from the chapter I’m writing to my blog, and I’ve convinced myself to share drafts with advisors and colleagues sooner. It doesn’t much matter which strategy you try, as long as you get in the habit of sharing your work early.