How to Gracefully Handle Writing Feedback by Setting Your Boundaries

A valuable lesson I learned from my dissertation chair

Alexys Carlton
Oct 21, 2020 · 8 min read
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No one warned me that my doctorate would kidnap every ounce of my self-confidence and only return it to me once I successfully defended my dissertation. Your advisors warn you that it’s stressful and time-consuming, that you need to set expectations with your friends and family because they won’t see you much for years. But the emotional toll you’ll experience isn’t in your welcome packet.

By the time you make it to the dissertation phase, you’ve missed years of memories with your loved ones and added another $30K+ to your growing student loan debt. Your sacrifice was pointless unless you write an adequate dissertation manuscript by your deadline. Finding another publisher or self-publishing your manuscript aren’t options in this writing journey. You must prove to your dissertation committee that you deserve the title of doctor.

For me, that meant three people stood between my goal and me — my Dissertation Chair, my Subject Matter Expert (SME), and my Academic Reader. These highly qualified PhDs were more intelligent than I am, had written a dissertation manuscript, and helped dozens of other students complete theirs.

They are experts, which meant they have specific expectations and would criticize every word choice, sentence, and writing decision I made. Every page of my one-hundred-page manuscript had to please these three individuals if I wanted to graduate.

Luckily, my Dissertation Chair taught me one valuable lesson that helped me accept writing feedback with grace to accomplish my goals: set boundaries before submitting your work for feedback.

Why you should set boundaries before submitting your work for feedback

Writing is a vulnerable trade regardless of the genre in which you write. Your writing is self-expression, expressing your creativity, your emotions, or your knowledge. Even the most constructive feedback can feel like a direct, personal attack.

Failure to appropriately process feedback may have severe consequences for your writing career and your emotional state. For example, you may respond to an editor with a scathing email in disagreement that ruins your professional relationship, or stop writing altogether because you feel like you’ll never develop the skills required to become a published writer.

It’s crucial to remind yourself that you are the expert on the piece you wrote. You owe your work of art, which means you alone can decide what you are willing to change to achieve your goals with that piece.

Defining your boundaries with each piece helps you manage your emotions and provides a playbook for how to respond to feedback.

I’ll illustrate with a personal example.

My Dissertation Manuscript had five chapters, each of which had to be approved by my committee before I could move on to the next chapter. My Dissertation Chair called me to give me a pep talk before he released the chapter feedback to me. He reminded me that my goal was to graduate, to become Dr. Carlton, and then he would say to me: “Unless it’s factually or morally wrong, accept the edits and move on.”

He set clear boundaries for when it’s appropriate to disagree or push back on the edits made. In other words, he was saying: “Alexys, when you review our feedback, remember your goal is to graduate. It‘s a waste of your time to dispute any feedback or edits the committee made unless they’re factually or morally wrong.”

His advice removed my emotion from the review process. I didn’t care if they changed my writing tone, asked me to use different examples, or most other red lines they made on my draft. I reviewed the edits to ensure they did not misrepresent the facts. When their suggestions were within these set boundaries, I viewed all feedback as help, a lending hand to help me graduate.

Clear boundaries removed my emotional response to writing criticism, allowing me to focus on the task. Clear boundaries also helped me pick my battles and professionally communicate why I was unwilling to incorporate the feedback into my manuscript.

How to set boundaries for your writing pieces

Before submitting a draft for feedback, you should define clear boundaries to describe what you are unwilling to change or compromise about your piece. Adding this extra step in your writing process will prepare for the potentially difficult decisions you’ll make after your draft is returned with feedback.

Your boundaries are dependent on your goals for that specific writing piece. Consider why you wrote the piece, how you want to distribute it, and any other important aspects you want to maintain.

What is the primary purpose of this piece?

The boundaries you set for a non-fiction piece versus a fictional one will vary, just as they’ll vary for a poem versus a personal essay. The primary purpose is the goal you are trying to achieve when your audience reads your work. Examples include:

  • I want this piece to entertain my audience.
  • I want to make my audience cry (or laugh, smile, etc.).
  • I want to inform my audience on a specific topic.
  • I want to convince my audience to take action.
  • I want to help my audience.

How do you want your work distributed?

Your publication goals impact your boundaries. The final product for an academic journal will look different than when you plan to submit it to a Medium publication. The boundaries you’re willing to cross when publishing a book with a well-known publisher are different than when self-publishing.

For example, I’m currently reading The Stand: The Complete And Uncut Edition by Stephen King. In the preface, King explains that he cut 400 pages from his original version because the book’s production costs were too high. According to his accounting/marketing team, fewer people would buy the book at the sales price required to account for the extra 400 pages’ costs. King made the hard decision to cut those pages so more people would read the story.

Knowing your distribution goals will help you set clear boundaries. Examples include:

  • I want to publish this piece in a popular magazine.
  • I want to a well-known publishing company to distribute my book.
  • I want to self-publish on Amazon.
  • I want this piece distributed by the Medium curators.
  • I want to sell this piece as content marketing to a company.

It’s important to consider your financial and personal goals when setting your publication goals to ensure the publication aligns.

Some goals don’t fall within your specific purpose or how you want to publish your work. After you’ve defined goals for these two main areas, spend time considering your work and determine anything else that is important to you. Here are some examples:

  • I don’t want to add any personal details that may invade someone’s privacy.
  • I don’t want my work to be disrespectful to specific groups or individuals.
  • I want this piece to remain at an academic reading level.
  • I want the main character’s name and physical characteristics to resemble my grandmother.

You own your work and can set any boundaries you want.

After defining your goals, it’s time to create boundary statements, which are simple statements that define when you will accept and reject feedback similar to the follow template statements:

I will accept all feedback from [insert distribution sources], as long as the feedback doesn’t remove/impact [insert purposes] or [insert other important goals].

I will reject all feedback from [insert distribution sources], if the feedback removes/impacts [insert purposes] or [insert other important goals].

I’ll illustrate this process for you with a few examples.

Pretend you wrote a fictional short story. Your goals are to provide thrilling entertainment to your readers, and you want to it published in a reputable literary magazine that will pay you. Your feedback boundary statement would look similar to the following:

I will accept all feedback from a paying and reputable literary magazine, as long as the feedback doesn’t remove the thrilling experience I want for my readers.

I will reject all feedback from a paying and reputable literary magazine if the feedback removes the thrilling experience I want for my readers.

For my dissertation manuscript, my goals were to adhere to academic and research integrity while informing my readers of my study, and I wanted to my dissertation committee to accept it. My feedback boundary statements were as follows:

I will accept all feedback from my dissertation committee, as long as the feedback maintains the factual and moral integrity of my study.

I will reject all feedback from my dissertation committee if the feedback impacts the factual and moral integrity of my study.

Use your boundaries statements when responding to feedback

Revisit your boundary statements before reviewing any writing feedback. This practice puts me in the correct mindset for processing the input by calming my emotions. As you read each edit, comment, or suggestion, ask yourself if the feedback is within or outside of the boundaries you have set.

If the feedback is within your set boundaries, add a task to incorporating that feedback and move on to review the next suggestion.

If the feedback is not within your boundaries, you have three options:

  1. Respectfully push back by explaining your boundary and why you can’t make the change. If possible, propose an alternative solution within your boundaries.
  2. Compromise on the boundary you set.
  3. Walk away and find another publication or distribution method that is willing to respect your boundaries.

Let’s continue using the example above where you’ve created the following feedback boundary statements for the thrilling short story you submitted to a literary magazine:

I will accept all feedback from a paying and reputable literary magazine, as long as the feedback doesn’t remove the thrilling experience I want for my readers.

I will reject all feedback from a paying and reputable literary magazine if the feedback removes the thrilling experience I want for my readers.

The editors at the literary magazine respond to your submission saying they enjoyed your story, but to fit the allotted space, you’ll need to cut 25% of your story. Using your boundaries, you’ll can accept this feedback so long as it’s still a thrilling story after you shorten it.

Suppose the editors ask you to work on character development. Your boundaries will help you see that taking the time to incorporate their feedback will allow you to achieve your publication goal and make your story more thrilling to read.

But if they ask you to remove the murder scene from your story, the most thrilling aspect of it, you’ll be prepared to walk away because they’ve crossed your boundaries.

After practicing this method, you’ll realize that anything petty that once bothered you, like writing style or grammar and punctuation feedback, no longer consumes your energy or steals your confidence. Accepting those types of feedback likely doesn’t cross your boundaries, but rather it’s feedback that helps you achieve your goals.

After I graduated, I wanted to turn my 100-page dissertation manuscript into a piece worthy of being published in an academic journal. Most journals have a word limit. My co-author and I had to cut 95 pages from my manuscript to publish the study, which required removing two of my four research questions.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever been asked to cut 95% of your work, but it sucks. I could have gotten emotional and refused to remove the words I poured sweat and tears to create. Instead, I remembered the great lesson my dissertation chair taught me, and evaluated the feedback request against the boundaries I set.

I’m proud to say that I’m now Dr. Carlton and a published research author because I used my boundaries to remove my emotions and ego and accomplished my goals by gracefully accepting feedback.

The Brave Writer

The next generation of writers breaking barriers together.

By The Brave Writer

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Thanks to Alexander Boswell

Alexys Carlton

Written by

Dr. BA, InfoSec | Privacy Technologist | Mostly write about technology, cyber security, & privacy | alexyswrites.com

The Brave Writer

The next generation of writers breaking barriers together.

Alexys Carlton

Written by

Dr. BA, InfoSec | Privacy Technologist | Mostly write about technology, cyber security, & privacy | alexyswrites.com

The Brave Writer

The next generation of writers breaking barriers together.

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