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Feedback & Revision

Follow these recommendations for providing useful feedback on peers' writing.

People are often shy about responding to others' writing. Because they are not professional writers or English professors, some people aren't sure of how to provide helpful feedback. This seems particularly true of inexperienced writers, who sometimes equate writing well with grammatically correct writing.

When we proofread a document, we are looking for small errors such as misspellings or accidental omissions.

Have you ever sent off an email message or submitted a school paper only to later discover that it was full of typographical errors?  How could you have missed all of these errors?

The answer seems to have something to do with how our brains work.  Our brains recognize patterns.  This is part of the reason why people who read frequently tend to read faster than infrequent readers: their brains more speedily recognize and process patterns of words on the page.

So there is this student who has just written a draft for one of the projects assigned to him in his composition class. He is walking to class with a copy of the draft in his hand, knowing that today the instructor has an in-class peer review session planned, and his stomach drops.

He begins more and more to think about the prospect of his own peers reading his work and becomes anxious. He starts thinking that perhaps today is the perfect time to take one of those “free” days that each student gets for absences. He thinks, This isn’t a “real” class, anyway—I’m not going to miss anything . . . . Why is my instructor making me share my writing with people I just met a few weeks ago?

Learn important collaborative and team-building skills and provide useful critiques of your peers' documents.

Contrary to the myth of the isolated author in the garret, successful writers do not work in isolation. Writers collaborate extensively. Writers develop their best ideas by discussing issues with colleagues, by researching others' ideas, and by exchanging comments about one another's documents.

Consider these suggestions when critiquing documents in group situations.

In a writing course you have an excellent opportunity to have your work read and evaluated by your peers. Rather than merely imagine how a potential audience might respond to your work, you can meet with classmates and discuss your ideas for writing projects or evaluate drafts.

Make the most of your conferencing experience by being prepared before you meet with your instructor.

As an undergraduate student, you may be provided with the opportunity to have conferences with your instructor. Conferences are typically 15–20 minutes long and may be individual or small group conferences. In many cases, your instructor may cancel classes for student conferences. This is because the individualized attention you will receive in your conference is extremely valuable for your development as a writer, and the time spent in your conference will be as valuable as your time spent in class.

Develop a "thick skin" and learn how to distinguish between useful and useless criticism.

Responding to your own or someone else's writing is a complex, subjective process. Evaluating your work, your peers' work, and published writing can be extraordinarily difficult. Unlike a math question that has a single correct answer, the criteria for excellence in writing vary according to your communication situation.

Below are some common questions to consider when reviewing a peer's paper as well as when reviewing feedback from peers:


  • In what ways have you fulfilled the assignment requirements in terms of purpose, length, audience, required/appropriate sources, appropriate persona/tone, and rhetorical stance?
  • What makes your thesis arguable, controversial, and/or insightful?
  • How does your thesis reflect your paper's purpose?
  • How have you advanced your thesis through convincing and compelling ideas?
  • How does each paragraph—along with all the sentences it contains—support your main idea?

Use talk-and-then-write strategies to jump-start writing projects.

Dialoguing, dictating, and group brainstorming all rely on talking to generate writing. Many people get their best ideas discussing issues and ideas with people.

Lawyers, doctors, and business leaders have frequently used dictation to draft documents. Now, as a student, you can also dictate, thanks to voice recognition software.

You may think of writing as a lonely activity, something to work at in a hushed, half-lit library carrel.  Or you may think of writing merely as a matter of correctness, of getting all the commas in just the right places.  Or you may suffer from writing anxiety and feel unable to produce the first word, let alone the first page.  These writing challenges, and many others, can be addressed in a meeting with a writing tutor.  Tutoring has the reputation of being remedial, of serving students with limited writing experience.  But the writing tutorial can benefit all writers—freshman, graduate, or faculty—and represents a significant learning opportunity.