January 14, 2017

How to profit from red ink: gain new insights from old feedback

Rob Desjardins, graduate writing advisor with the Student Success Centre, shares his tips on turning feedback from past writing assignments positive tools for revision. 

You’re back again — ready to take on another term, and keen to do better on your writing assignments than you did in the fall. What can you do strategically right now to write better essays, annotated bibliographies, or lab reports in March or April?

Here’s a suggestion: dig out your marked-up writing assignments from last term (that’s right, the ones you never wanted to see again). Now that the emotion and stress have dissipated, take a second look at your professors’ comments as they can provide a great starting point for improving your work this term. Start by analyzing them critically — what types of comments are the most common?
  • Do they concern weaknesses in your argument — that is, the failure to craft a clear thesis or substantiate your claims with evidence?  
  • Are they related to the structure and fluidity of your writing? For instance, does the marker indicate that he/she lost track of your ideas or felt that certain sections or paragraphs were constructed poorly?
  • Are there concerns about style and correctness on the sentence level? Notations like “ungrammatical” and “awkward” tend to signal these problems.
After reviewing and noting some common feedback themes emerging, how could this reflection help you with your writing? By counting, thinking about and classifying those seemingly random notations, you can use them to develop a sensible plan for improvement.

To tackle the plan, consider meeting with a writing consultant, perhaps one of the professionals at the Student Success Centre. Depending on what you’ve identified in the comments, a writing rep can help you to develop strategies to improve your work.

You may want to try taking a second run at outlining or crafting parts of an assignment you attempted last term. Now that the pressure off, you can consider ways to address the problems your professor identified. At first glance this may not sound very appealing, but trust us — it works.

And, remember: it’s never too early to use old insights — like previous feedback — in planning for new assignments, developing arguments, making outlines, and writing draft paragraphs. It sounds paradoxical, but working on your writing all the time  —  steadily and incrementally — helps you to improve it more quickly.