Secrets from Your Writing Instructor: How to Interpret Feedback

1. We’re supposed to limit the number of marginal comments we write on your draft.

For an essay of roughly 1000 words, research recommends that writing instructors add 10 marginal comments at most–both positive and negative. This means that you can’t assume you don’t need to revise something simply because your instructor didn’t comment on it. We’re supposed to pick roughly three areas you can improve on your essay so we don’t overwhelm you. So we comment on the three things that are most important and wait to comment on other areas in subsequent drafts (read: after you’ve revised the first three things).

2. There should be a hierarchical order to the long end comment we leave.

Writing instructors are encouraged to use the “criticism sandwich.” We open by commenting on something you did well and end with a second positive observation. It’s important to highlight what’s being done well in the paper so you’ll keep doing it and not delete it during revisions. This tactic also reminds everyone (both instructor and student) that teachers are there to help and encourage you, not just point out everything you did “wrong.”

After the positive opening, the comment should be listed in order of importance. Comments on argument and global structure should go first because it’s imperative these areas be revised first. Comments on style and grammar go last because it’s less pressing for you to address them.

3. At the college level, we’re not really going to comment on grammar.

Even though a lot of students express dissatisfaction with their knowledge of grammar, we have to move on and help you with higher-level writing skills: how to form a logical argument, how to incorporate research and evidence, how to structure your paper. We hope you learned enough about grammar in middle and high school that, if you’re motivated, you can continue working on learning grammar on your own.

We also worry that if we comment on grammar, it will shift your focus away from what’s important in the revision process. There’s no reason for me to tell you to fix a problem with subject-verb agreement in a sentence in your draft if you’re just going to rewrite that sentence anyway. If I do fix the grammar, you might be discouraged from changing the sentence.

Recently a student came to my office and we spent over an hour going over the grammar and word choices in every sentence of her draft. She said she learned a lot and now recognized some of her own patterns of error. The problem? I had told her earlier that she had large-scale structural issues that needed to be addressed first. In some cases, she would have to entirely rewrite a paragraph or two to better convey her point. I now worry she won’t rewrite those paragraphs because the grammar in her current paragraphs has already been “fixed,” and she won’t want to risk introducing more errors into a second draft. If she makes this decision, it will hurt her grade because having a solid argument is weighted more in the rubric than having correct grammar.

4. But we do really want to correct your grammar.

We’re writing instructors. We like the English language. We’re obsessed about the correct use of the comma. On one level, we just really want to fix your grammar because it bugs us.

We also know that improving your grammar is beneficial for you but there may be nowhere for you to go. Your writing instructors aren’t supposed to focus on grammar. The tutors in the writing center aren’t supposed to comment on grammar. The students in your peer review group are often as uncomfortable with grammar as you are. If you aren’t motivated to study grammar more on your own, you may feel stuck. And we know that other teachers might not be as lenient as we are, that your struggles with grammar may be a problem for you in other classes if not in ours. We’re sorry.


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