Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Writing group: Commenting styles, part three

So far, I've written two posts reviewing lessons I've learned from my writing group about giving and receiving comments (part one; part two). In part three, I discuss a technique I learned from my MSc supervisor, and a new technique I discovered via Twitter.

5. The "shit sandwich" 

I typically refer to this as the "hamburger approach", but I think this alternative title is more fitting. This approach is used when writing up an overview of your thoughts on a piece of work, in contrast with my previous posts about actual in-line comments on specific items. The premise of the shit sandwich is to start your critique with some general positive comments. Then you dive into the major issues of the paper, followed by some smaller criticisms. You finish off with some final positive thoughts and an encouraging sign off. In other words:
  1. Positive
  2. Major negative
  3. Minor negative
  4. Positive + encouraging

It's totally transparent, but it somehow works to soften the blow. (Contrast that approach with a review that starts right in with a long list of criticisms with nary a positive point to be found). My MSc supervisor used this approach for all his grading, and encouraged us to do the same when reviewing other people's work. I'd say that it's a good general strategy and forces us to say something positive, which is always a good thing.

6. Shit sandwich with extra toppings 

This Tweet showed up in my feed just as I was starting to review the writing of the week, and just after my commenting style had been critiqued. Briefly, the four rules are:

  1. Re-express your target's position
  2. List points of agreement
  3. Mention what you've learned
  4. Critiques & rebuttals

I promised my Twitter followers that I'd apply these rules in writing group. However, as I started writing my comments, I realized that these four points weren't quite sufficient for my needs, so I combined them with the shit sandwich (#5) as follows:
  1. Positive: Start with broad overall positive feedback
  2. Summarize the piece of writing: warning: this can be time consuming. However, I've already discovered that I give better feedback if I take the time to write a one-sentence summary of each paragraph as I read it. I provide this "outline" as an addendum to my comments in case it is helpful. If I've already written this outline, producing a summary of the piece is quite easy. 
  3. List points of agreement: this was tricky since the piece this week was just the Introduction and Methods sections. However, I identified an argument made during the introduction and found that I was convinced by it, so I mentioned that.
  4. Mention what you've learned:  It was easy to identify something I didn't already know, since the writer this week works on quite different research than I do. 
  5. Other specific positive comments: e.g. "your methods section was detailed enough that I could replicate your experiment"
  6. Larger critiques: Describe any general problems with the paper (e.g., general organizational techniques) and point out possible solutions. 
  7. Smaller critiques: Mention any smaller points (although typically I think these concerns are typically addressed in the inline comments)
  8. One-sentence-per-paragraph outline: Not necessary, but something I like to do. 
  9. Final positive closing thought: preferably with some encouraging message. 
You'll notice a few things. First, this leads to a LONG REVIEW. However, #7 is implicit in the inline comments, and #8 is totally optional. You can decide how much you want to say in the rest of the review. 

Another thing - probably the most important thing to take away from this technique: Of the 7 obligatory components (omitting #7 and #8), the first five are positive. By starting off with so much benevolent helpfulness (or as one group member put it: "ego stroking"), the harsher critiques seem less threatening, and are ultimately more helpful. 

Seb was the guinea pig, since it happened to be his week. I gave him warning that I was trying a new feedback technique and wanted to know how he liked it. He told me he that he did indeed like it. He found the summary was great for identifying whether or not I understood the story/message of his paper. He also said it was surprisingly pleasant to read about something I had learned. (I guess in hindsight, this makes sense  - theoretically, the point of writing papers is to share knowledge, so it must be nice to learn we've succeeded). He also said he'll try to adopt the technique himself.

Overall, I'd say this technique was a success and I'll probably be implementing it in future writing group meetings and other reviews as well. 

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