The reader is always right

[I'm adapting this tip from my friends and former colleagues Glenn Regehr and Kevin Eva. They're superstar researchers with hundreds of published articles and many successful grant applications under their belts. A few years ago Kevin wrote an editorial on this very topic! This advice goes well beyond the academic world.]

One of the easiest things to do when you're writing is to take your reader for granted.

It's easy to get wrapped up in your own work and forget that you're writing for an audience. This is especially true when you're writing for an audience who is assessing the merit of your work—think of reviewers for grant applications or journal articles.

It's easy to forget that the reader is always right.

If you've ever had a paper or a grant application rejected (and if you've been at this a while, that's pretty much guaranteed), that is most definitely NOT your first reaction.

Your first reaction is probably closer to wanting to punch your reviewer in the face. Or slash their tires. Or tar and feather them Home Alone-style. (No? Just me?) Especially if their comments made it seem that they didn't understand a single word that you wrote.

But. BUT.

It's your job to make sure the reader understands you.

It's not their fault if they miss something. It's your fault. It means that you weren't clear enough or you failed in some other way to direct your reader to the point you were making. 

Keep in mind that these reviewers are taking a much closer look at your work than the average reader. And if they don't get it, chances are your target audience won't, either.

I'm not trying to kick you while you're down. Getting rejected really hurts. It's fine to take a day or two to be disappointed and think some uncharitable thoughts about your reviewer. (IN PRIVATE! That should be obvious.)

Then you need to read their comments carefully and thoughtfully, and revisit your work to see what can be changed next time. But the best thing you can do is this:

Think about your reader before you submit anything.

How do you do that?

  1. Make it easy
  2. Make it predictable
  3. Make it compelling

We'll tackle each of these in the coming weeks. In the meantime, start thinking of the ways you can make life easier for your readers.


What have you learned from reviewer feedback? Tell me in the comments!