Providing Feedback on Drafts

Faculty comments on student drafts are central to teaching a Writing Skills course. You are able to reinforce and revisit techniques and strategies you’ve introduced in class, but now specifically tailored to the student’s work. Whenever possible, make connections in your comments to discussions you’ve had about writing in class. 

What follows are things we in the Writing Center have noticed increase student engagement with feedback. This list is not meant to be prescriptive; focusing on one or two of these ideas will go a long way.

  • Flooding a paper with comments can overwhelm a student and make their revision unfocused. Good feedback will signal—but not correct—awkward phrasing or extremely long sentences, illogical formulations that make unfounded assertions, and incomplete thoughts. For example, if you come across an illogical argument, perhaps include a comment showing the student the conclusion you drew—and why it is either incorrect or misguided—allowing them to think through the issue and figure out how to phrase the assertion more logically.

  • Simply circling and labeling errors in grammar or mechanics won’t improve students' writing skills over the long term unless you are specifically teaching these concepts in class. Students will correct mistakes called out in comments, but will often repeat them in the future out of habit. If you have concerns about a student’s understanding of the basic rules of Standard American English, say so in an early comment and suggest the student visit the Writing Workshop. While our tutors are not copyeditors or proofreaders, they have some training in providing feedback on issues of grammar and mechanics, and can always point students to other resources. Your time (in class and in your feedback) should be spent on content and higher order writing concerns.

  • Rather than commenting on the first sentence or paragraph and proceeding from there, read the whole essay without commenting, and then help the student see where they may have gotten lost. Useful comments will show students, for example, when and where they promised something in their text but did not deliver on it. Reading the whole essay first will also help you see the paper’s structure, which may result in recommendations of paragraph reordering or the deletion of entire sections that you now know to be tangents. 

  • The most effective feedback comes in the form of questions that require the student to thoughtfully reconsider their interpretation. Such questions help the student see that the issues they’re addressing are complex and have multiple possible responses from which they may not yet understand they have already chosen. Consider playing devil’s advocate and asking them to take an alternative perspective or envision a competing point of view. Remember that their early drafts will be devoted to working out and supporting their own argument; subsequent drafts will improve if writers bring relevant counterarguments to bear.

  • The concept of good writing is very likely new to many first year students. Most have been trained in ineffective and repetitious writing structures throughout high school. Becoming a sophisticated writer takes time, practice, and supportive but clear feedback from other sophisticated writers. While we in the Writing Center do not want you to lower your expectations, we also hope you’ll be patient as young writers evolve and grow under your guidance.

  • There are resources on this website for students, including a page devoted to the reverse outline. This tool is most effective in helping students revise their work conceptually, rather than simply looking for typos or instances of incorrect grammar usage. Please use the section menu to navigate through Resources for Students, and feel welcome to share the links on your syllabus or in your comments.