The Big Picture: Giving Quality Academic Content Feedback

As academics, many of us feel most at ease working within our own subject areas. Whether we’re giving feedback to students, colleagues, or others, our editorial eyes are most attuned to the subjects we know best. But what does it mean to give good feedback, and what distinguishes the feedback a professor gives to students, peers give to their fellow specialists, versus what you might receive from a developmental editor? 

Furthermore, are these skills easily transferrable? Anyone who’s received a report from the dreaded reviewer no. 2 might suggest not. However, do professors also make the best developmental editors? The response isn’t always a clear “yes.”

I polled our developmental editors, all of whom either currently or formerly worked in academia, to find out what, in their eyes, are the key differences between reviewing manuscripts as a professor, peer reviewer, and as an editor and compiled them into the following post.


Educators are perhaps the most attuned to giving feedback on writing, for the simple fact that they do it so often as part of their course requirements and in the process of elevating grad students. We are constantly giving tips on academic writing standards and marking up essays and research papers for both copy and content issues. In these situations, we are clearly regarded as the content matter experts and we are seeking to train others in the basic principles of how to communicate to others using the methods and language of our respective disciplines. 

As Katherine Fusco says, “When I give feedback to a graduate student, I’m often asking more questions because they are typically still deciding on topics.” Our role is to facilitate their engagement with a field that we know well, to guide them in developing ideas and putting those down on paper. We are asked to advise on the full range of issues related to manuscript development: from choosing an appropriate topic and approach, to the use of language and sources, from the most basic intro level to advanced technique.

In assessing writing, we are often focused on whether or not the students meet certain standards that we ourselves set—either written down in a rubric or unwritten—in order to give them a grade or pass them on to the next phase in their careers. Does the essay contain a thesis? Check. Does it demonstrate that they looked at a minimum of five outside sources? Check. Is it written in comprehensible English? Check. Does it demonstrate a certain level of knowledge about the subject of the course? Check. 

The problem is that many of us were never formally trained in the principles of academic writing, some of us still struggle with our own writing, and, worse, we perpetuate outdated or flat out incorrect rules and customs. Further, as professors, we are likely the only ones to ever read this piece of writing and, therefore, we are the sole intended audience. Therefore our feedback is based on what we ourselves want to see, not what might be more easily understood by a non-specialist or even someone outside of our discipline.

Peer Reviewers

It can be a big moment in one’s academic career when they’re invited to serve as a peer reviewer for the first time. Finally someone has recognized your subject-area mastery and they’ve asked you to evaluate someone who’s writing on a topic in your field. It can be a big boost to one’s professional and self-esteem. Yet, anyone who’s received peer-review feedback on their own writing will tell you that this process can very easily slide into a negative place, where the author whose writing is being judged feels like they are being attacked. Academia—don’t you just love it?!

Peer reviewers, in my opinion, have two main functions: to make sure that the writing is a good fit for the publisher/journal (in subject, methodology, and readership) and to ensure that it meet scholarly standards—that it makes a solid contribution to the literature on the subject. However, some reviewers often feel the need to use it as a platform to promote their own work or to defend their turf against newcomers (or even colleagues—as many authors are easily identifiable despite anonymity). Dreaded reviewer no. 2 strikes again.

Peter Rosenbaum recognizes that sometimes scholars accept precisely because they stand for or against a particular set of ideas. “Freedom from bias is not a virtue possessed by very many professors, although they profess to the contrary.” This bias makes authors treat the review as a space for argument, challenge, and destruction, rather than a place for creative problem solving.

There’s a subtle art to giving good critical feedback that is both encouraging and, at the same time, helps the author to improve the writing so that it both meets the requirements of the publisher and appropriately engages in existing scholarship on the subject. One of the key things that peer reviewers can do is to recognize the challenge of writing in general and to not take the peer-review process as a personal affront based on one’s bias. 

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we all helped other scholars improve so that we all can move the field forward together? Unfortunately, I don’t foresee this shift in mindset happening anytime soon.

Developmental Editors

The developmental editor—a professional who helps authors deal with big-picture issues like argumentation, evidence/support, organization, and flow—comes from an entirely different place than the professor or peer reviewer. Although we might have experience in academia or still have a foot in the ivory tower, we are hired precisely because we are able to take ourselves outsideof the scholarly community—to suspend our subject-area defense strategy—and see what the reader sees. We are there precisely to empathize with the person who will be reading the manuscript.

Sometimes professors make the best kinds of developmental editors: they’ve seen every kind of problem an academic author can have and have experience communicating criticism in a way that’s clear but not overwhelming for the author. Common issues we see include missing or weak arguments, poorly structured evidence that doesn’t support a thesis, bland or equivocating writing, sections and paragraphs that need to be reordered, and more. 

Is it helpful to have subject-area specialty in order to perform a developmental edit? It can be, but it’s not necessary. Generally, you can leave it to the peer reviewer to gauge a manuscript’s contribution to the field. The editor is there to help you present your ideas in the most convincing way possible. Katherine says: “I am not the subject matter expert, the author is, and I see it as my role to facilitate their writing process so that their expertise can shine.” Furthermore, Peter adds that, unlike the peer reviewer, “Editors are generally not a part of the community and can be expected to perform impartially and without bias.” 

We are here to help you write more accessibly, ultimately so that you can get your ideas out there. And we can see through all of the competitive BS of reviewer no. 2 to find out what you need to address and what can be politely dismissed.