You want me to do what to my paper? Interpreting your professors’ feedback

Interpretation can be tricky. It's always a good idea to take notes when a teacher, boss, or client is giving you feedback. Photo Credit: Professors in Pajamas by AUM OER is licensed CC BY 2.0

Feedback is one of the major components of effective writing. Professional technical writers may get feedback from clients or members of their target audience before producing a deliverables; creative writers may ask other writers they trust or a sample of their target demographic to provide feedback; and workplace writers may receive feedback from their boss or coworkers before releasing the final version of a draft. What these writers know is that feedback provides an invaluable opportunity to understand the needs and perceptions of their audiences, so it’s important to take that information into account to produce a rhetorically sound final product. 

In most classes that require you to produce writing, you will get feedback from your professor, and you’ll need to know how to respond effectively to that feedback. If your class doesn’t have feedback included as a required component, you can always ask your professor or someone at your school’s writing center to give you feedback that will improve your writing for the class.

For some writers, this part of the process can feel like taking a step back. You already spent weeks researching, writing, and rewriting the paper, and a week later, your professor sends you back your draft, marked up with questions, comments, arrows, and a long paragraph talking about strengths and weaknesses in your paper. Next, you’re supposed to take this feedback and change your paper–that paper you already worked on so hard! At this point, many students may feel frustrated and stuck. They may misunderstand some of the comments, or be unclear about what their professors are asking them to do. The purpose of this article is to walk you through some common comment types, and help you respond effectively to improve your writing. 


Most professors will provide an overall comment on your paper, which often identifies the strengths of the paper, an overarching note about the places where you need the most improvement, and sometimes, actions you can take or resources that might help you. Some students skip over this part altogether, or focus only on the positive or negative commentary. However, if your professor is giving you an endnote, it’s intended to give you a strong overall sense of what works in the paper (as well as what doesn’t). 

The best way to start thinking about your professor’s feedback is using this statement as a road map to understanding your in-text feedback. Here’s an example of an endnote I might write to a student: 

Hi Student, 

Thank you for submitting your draft of the research paper! I think you make a really strong claim in your thesis that corresponds to the conversation about your topic that you identified in the annotated bibliography. Nice work! In the next draft, I would like to see you use more specific examples from your research to support your claims, especially in the second paragraph. The slideshow from class Thursday might help you there. Please let me know if you have any questions!

First, let’s start with the positive. If your professor identifies your thesis as a strength, you have a solid foundation for your claim, which means you can stick with this position as you move into the next stages of drafting. Now, you can focus on how you can make that claim better throughout the paper. For example, you might take a look at your thesis statement and ensure that your topic sentences in each paragraph have a similarly strong argument that consistently supports that strong thesis statement you wrote.

Then make note of what strategies you used to create the thesis. Did you include a counterargument? Is the position particularly compelling because of the structure of the sentence? By making note of what is working and why, you can improve your writing, for example, by using similar processes next time you have to write a paper. 

Next, focus on the improvement. Typically, your professor will not list everything that needs to be addressed in the end note. Instead, the end note identifies what they believe is the most important step you can take to improve your paper. Often, these improvement comments will focus on big picture issues, which will require some effort to address, but will also pay off by strengthening your argument significantly. 

In this example, the professor refers to a previous document showing research, an annotated bibliography. In that case, the professor most likely wants you to go back to that document and/or the research cited in the document to improve your claims. The professor has also referenced an in-class slide show as a resource for integrating evidence; try to review any resources your professor provides so you can use these tools effectively. You might consider reviewing any in-text comments that mention evidence, and especially taking a look at specific places the professor has asked you to review (e.g.,  the second paragraph).

Finally, block out some time to attend office hours, make a note in your peer review document about evidence, attend your school’s writing center, or volunteer part/all of your paper for class workshops so that you can get feedback on your evidence use before submitting the next draft. 

So, to simplify, when reading the end note: 

  1. Analyze and enhance the positives.
  2. Return to previous classwork to identify work you’ve already done (especially if the professor mentions it!).
  3. Review resources from the class that address topics referenced in the endnote. 
  4. Review in-text comments in light of the endnote. 
  5. Make time to attend office hours or get another form of feedback to discuss any questions you have and/or to make sure you’re on track. 

In-text Comments: Directions

Students tend to feel most comfortable responding to direct feedback, where a professor writes down a specific action for you to take on your paper, like “Move this sentence to the end of the paragraph” or “Use a different word here to communicate your meaning.” In this type of commentary, professors are providing suggestions or actions they think you should take to improve your paper.

While these directions are certainly the most simple to decode, you might find yourself disagreeing with the professor, and being tempted to just ignore the comment. However, what you would miss if you simply did not make that change is an opportunity to understand your audience more clearly. If you’re ever questioning a specific, direct comment from your professor, then try to block out some time to ask them, “Why?” The ensuing conversation will most likely help you improve as a writer, which is the goal of feedback. 

Often, these specific directions may be connected to elements in the endnote, so be sure to take note of the key course concepts you’ve identified in the endnote as you frame and interpret direct in-text comments and make decisions about how to address them. 

In-text Comments: Questions

One really great form of feedback that professors rely a lot on are questions. Questions provide a direct line to the reader and also invite dialogue between the reader and the writer. Unlike directive comments, which tell you what to do, a question is a version of non-directive feedback, or feedback that acknowledges that you, the writer, have the capability to find solutions to problems without specific, explicit direction from your professor. If a professor asks a question in feedback, they are expecting you to revise your paper in a way that answers the question or addresses the issue raised by their question. Following are some examples of questions you might see in a paper, and what your professor is referring to when they ask those questions. 

What is the main purpose of this paper?

When your professor questions what your purpose is, they are most likely commenting on your thesis. You may have forgotten to include a clear statement of your purpose early in your paper. Conversely, you may have changed your mind while you were writing, and you may need to revisit your thesis to account for this shift in your understanding. You may have misunderstood a piece of evidence you included that doesn’t support your claim, or you may have forgotten to refute a counterargument.

If your professor is questioning your purpose or argument, then a great first step is to try, without looking at your paper, to write down in one sentence what you think your main argument is. Then, re-read your paper and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where do I include a clear statement of this purpose? If I don’t include that, where can I add it? If I do, could it be better placed so the reader can easily locate the purpose?
  •  Do my paragraphs support that purpose? If they do, how can I explain that connection  to the reader? If they don’t, should this information be removed? 

How does this evidence support your claim?

This question often comes up in body paragraphs. When a professor asks this question, they’re letting you know that the connection between the evidence you’ve included and the point you’re making in the thesis or topic sentence is unclear. You may have missed an explanation altogether, thinking the evidence stands alone (hint: it doesn’t!) or your connection language might not be as clear as you hoped. You can address this issue by adding in explicit connections between the information and your main point in the paragraph/section of your paper. 

How do you know this is true?

This question, or questions like it, typically mean your professor is looking for you to add evidence to a claim. You may have thought that information was self-evident, or obvious, but your professor is telling you it is not. This comment is an opportunity for you to show what you know, and to build your ethos by providing specific information from your research to support your claim. 

What do you mean here?

This question is tricky, and it can mean all sorts of things! Try reading through the sentence at varying levels to try to decode the question. First, check the sentence-level meaning and ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Did you try out any new words that you weren’t super comfortable using? If so, that word may not have the meaning or use that you wanted it to in the sentence.
  • If you read the sentence aloud to someone else in the room out of context, do they understand the point you’re trying to make? If they can’t, then you might need to revise, add, or simplify so the meaning becomes clearer. 

If the issue isn’t at the sentence level, then the next step is to check the meaning in context. You might have accidentally said something harmful, untrue, or inconsistent with your argument that your professor wants you to think through more carefully. If you’re still in doubt, then ask your professor what they mean by “what do you mean here.”

Specific question about your paper’s topic.

Although harder to model, specific questions about your paper are often the most rewarding because you know that your professor is really reading and trying to process your point. For example, if you are writing a paper about the camping ban in Austin, Texas, and your professor asks you a question like “How does recent legislation influence the point you make here about visibility of people who are homeless?” then your professor is trying to really engage your curiosity and add depth to the argument you’re making. If you’re not familiar with the legislation, look it up! If you are, then you should provide the answer to the question somewhere in the paper, whether it is in an added sentence, paragraph, or another entire section.

While questions can be frustrating, they also offer you opportunities to dialogue with your professor and grow as a writer. 

In-text Comments: Shorthand/terminology comments

Some professors make use of shorthand to provide comments to students. If your professor is using abbreviations that you’re not familiar with, check your course resources to see if they have provided a key. If you can’t find the key, then you should check with the professor to see if they have provided one, or if not, if they can help you decode their abbreviations. 

 Similarly, if the professor uses terminology you don’t know, like “comma splice,” “split infinitive,” “present participle,” etc., also try first to see if any course resources can help you understand those terms. Next, try Google (or another search engine) to see if you can find a helpful resource, like Writing Commons, or a video on Youtube that can explain the issue to you. If you’re still stuck, then you can send an email to your professor asking for additional feedback on this issue. 

When in doubt, talk it out

Remember–your professor is providing you with feedback to help you improve as a writer. Feedback is an act of care for many professors, an attempt to engage specifically with your writing and to help you become stronger. I have never met a professor who did not genuinely want their students to understand the comments they were spending a lot of time providing to students. If you need help understanding feedback, please reach out for more feedback, either from your professor, or from someone in your school’s writing center.  While the process of revising with feedback can be difficult and time-consuming, you don’t have to struggle alone to interpret your professors’ feedback.