Writers need readers, so audience is central to most writing situations. Academic writing is no exception, so having someone else give you feedback on your writing is crucial for your success.
If you get no feedback during your writing process, especially when the assignment is unfamiliar or the ideas are complex, you run the risk of writing a text that is only comprehensible to you. You don’t want to wait to find out that your reader cannot understand your ideas until after you have handed in the assignment, so getting feedback should be a normal part of your process.
Finding a Reader
You have a number of choices of people you can ask for feedback:
- Especially in writing classes, your professors will frequently require some kind of peer response from your classmates. Even if this isn’t required, you can connect with at least one classmate and offer to exchange drafts.
- Your campus almost certainly has writing tutors. These tutors may be professional tutors or they may be students, but either way, they will be strong writers. They also will have gone through training to enable them to provide helpful guidance for writers.
- Your professor may be willing to read drafts of material, though I recommend going to office hours (or setting up an appointment) with a draft rather than trying to email it. I know that I turn away emailed requests for me to review a draft because if I do that for one student, I need to do it for all of them, and there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. However, a student showing up with a draft sends the message that they are willing to put in the work with me, instead of asking me to do the work for them.
- Many students have friends or family members that they trust to read their writing. While this audience can be helpful—and my partner does this for me regularly—keep in mind that these readers are usually not members of the intended audience for the piece. They are not likely to be familiar with the assignment or the expectations, which means that you have to be cautious and critical as you consider their recommendations. In addition, these are people who care about you, and they may be more concerned about hurting your feelings than giving you constructive criticism.
When you have a choice about who to ask, choose wisely. If there is a tutor you work particularly well with, find out that tutor’s hours and sign up for their sessions. Find the classmate who asks good questions in class. Seek out your dorm mate down the hall who writes for the school newspaper.
We have all had the experience of working with someone who doesn’t do a good job. If you have ended up with one of those people, make sure you seek out other feedback. And if this happens in a class setting, don’t hesitate to let the professor know that you would rather not work with that person again, even if you think the professor already knows.
Identify at least two people who might be able to give you feedback on a writing project.
- Locate the writing tutors on your campus, including the hours when they are available. If you already have a draft to work with, sign up for a tutoring session.
- Identify at least one classmate that asks good questions and takes the class seriously. Talk to them either before or after class and suggest working together to give each other feedback.
- Check out your professor’s office hours. Sign up or drop by (depending on how your professor handles office hours) to talk about your ideas or share your draft.
- Find someone in your dorm who writes well, and ask them if they’d be willing to take a look at your writing. Be sure to offer them a return favor with something that you’re good at.
Choosing Your Moment
Feedback can occur at any point in your writing process, but the most common point is once you have a working draft. However, if you need feedback on a working thesis statement, there is no reason to wait. You can bring ideas or outlines or freewriting or thesis statements to writing tutors and professors, and you may even be required to get feedback on early pieces of a project.
No matter when in your process you solicit feedback, make sure you are allowing enough time to revise your work based on the feedback. When you ask for someone to review a draft a few hours before it’s due, you aren’t going to be able to do anything significant to fix an organization that doesn’t make sense or, worse, a source that needs to be replaced. You can ask for a review close to the deadline if all you want is for someone to check your grammar and citations, but this is really proofreading, not feedback on your writing. If you don’t allow enough time to revise, tutors and professors will probably tell you so directly. Don’t wait until the last minute!
If you are asking a friend or classmate to review your writing, be respectful of their time, too. Don’t give them the piece with so little time to spare that you put pressure on them. You don’t want someone who is doing you a favor to be in the position of having to say no or of doing a shoddy job because you didn’t allow enough time.
Getting Useful Feedback
How familiar is the following scenario?
“Can you read my paper and let me know if it’s okay?”
“Sure.” Your roommate takes about five minutes to read over your paper. “I really like your introduction. You might want to say a little more about this point in the second paragraph. I also think this comma is wrong.”
“Thanks!” You keep your introduction as-is. You add a sentence to the second paragraph, and you fix the comma that they noticed.
When your professor gives you back the project, there are comments about problems with your use of sources and about your overall organization being confusing, things your roommate said nothing about. Hurt feelings ensue.
What happened? Rather than blame your roommate for giving you weak feedback, though, think about what you asked them to do. You asked them to read, and they did. But you didn’t give them enough guidance to give good feedback.
When I get the “Can you read my paper?” question from students, I respond by asking, “What would you like me to focus on?” When you are requesting feedback, you should have some goals, and you should give your reader some direction. Without those goals and directions, you are likely to get vague comments that are of little help.
When professors assign peer responses, they generally provide some guidelines, but even if they don’t, you can use information from the assignment to create some. Specifically, try looking at the rubric or other information given to you about how the assignment will be evaluated. Then, make a list of the areas you most want feedback on. What do you want to know about your draft? Here are some possible questions:
- Can you identify my thesis statement? Does it make sense? If not, what’s confusing?
- Does the overall organization of my project make sense? If not, what doesn’t seem logical?
- Are there paragraphs that are confusing or difficult to follow? If so, which one(s) and what’s confusing or difficult?
- Do my sources meet the requirements of the assignment? Am I using those sources well?
- Does my introduction do a good job setting up my topic and thesis statement?
- Does my conclusion do more than summarize and seem like a logical extension of the rest of my paper?
You can come up with more specific questions based on the actual assignment and areas that you believe need attention.
As you become a more advanced writer, you’ll be better able to formulate questions that give readers some direction. For example, I asked my daughter, a technical writing student (at the time, close to finishing her degree) to review some of the early work on this book. When I did so, I asked her to ignore line-editing and sentence-level issues, such as grammar and style, and to focus on two things: whether she felt I was missing anything for each section and whether my explanations made sense (and would make sense to my intended reader, a first-year writing student).
Using a draft that you still have time to revise, prepare at least three questions and then take your work to one of the readers you’ve chosen. Be sure to ask about substantive matters (like organization or evidence) and not just about sentence-level issues (like grammar and citation).
You are the author of your project. This means that all of the decision-making about what to include and exclude, about what sources to use, about what arguments to make, about what words to use are all yours. This is true no matter what feedback you receive or who you receive it from.
Many times, you will want to make changes based on the feedback. You didn’t notice, for example, that you had four quotations in the same paragraph with only one sentence of your own until your reader pointed it out.
Sometimes, though, feedback can leave us feeling defensive. Good writers find ways to work through that defensiveness to determine whether there is something to the point the reader is making.
When you get comments and suggestions on your work, come at those with an open mind. Look at your own writing critically and try to determine why the respondent gave the feedback they did.
Still other times, we reject the feedback. When we do this, it should not be because we don’t have time to make the changes or because the changes are too hard—though I fully recognize that this happens sometimes. Instead, we should base our rejection on whether we believe that making the changes suggested would make the project better. I know that if I don’t think it will improve my work, I still thank the reader, even though I ignore their suggestion.
After all, I am the author.
When You’re Giving Feedback
During your college career (and probably after), you’ll be asked to give feedback, sometimes as part of a required assignment and sometimes informally. Here is some advice about handling these situations.
First, follow an ethic of reciprocity: When you are giving feedback to someone else, give them feedback with the same care and attention that you would like to receive. “Good job” doesn’t really tell a writer much. What’s good about that part? Your response should include some details so that the writer gets specific information about what you think they are doing well.
Second, when you see a problem, say so, but make your criticism constructive. Telling the writer that you think their argument is wrong isn’t helpful, even if that’s what you believe. Instead, point out specific places where their argument isn’t supported well enough or where their logic doesn’t quite make sense. You can let them know you disagree, but help them make their argument better anyway.
Third, ask questions. I love when my reader asks questions. For example, my partner regularly asks me, “What does this mean?” Every time they do that, I am forced to think about my intended readers and whether they would understand what I’ve written—reflection prompted by a simple question.
Finally, use this as an opportunity to think about your own work. Pay attention to how that writer has done the assignment, particularly the parts of the draft that you admire. For example, if you really like their conclusion, think about whether you could use a similar strategy for your conclusion—if not on this project, then perhaps on the next.
- As a college student, you have lots of potential readers available: classmates, tutors, professors, and other students.
- You can get feedback at any point in your process. You don’t need to have a complete draft!
- Be sure to request feedback with plenty of time to make changes.
- Don’t just ask someone to read your paper. Instead, ask your reader to comment on aspects of your project that you most want help with.
- Remember that you are the author, so you decide whether and how much to use the feedback you receive.
- When you are giving feedback to someone else, give them the kind of feedback you’d like to receive, make sure your criticism is constructive, and ask questions. Also use this as an opportunity to read like a writer. How has this writer done something that you admire, and can you use this approach in your own work?
“Class Conversation” by a student in my Fall 2022 class who wished to remain nameless is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. The people in the picture all agreed to be photographed.