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Negotiating Feedback

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. 

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.

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?

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.

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.

Save time by resolving substantive rhetorical questions before editorial ones. View revision as a creative, questioning process.

When professional writers are asked to describe their writing process, many emphasize the importance of revision. For many writers, writing is revision. We know from countless studies of writers at work that professional writers may revise a document twenty, thirty, even fifty times before submitting it for publication. Many writers rely on revision to generate their most creative ideas, to find the best form for a document.

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.

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.

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.

Instructions: once you receive feedback from readers, take a moment to reflect on the nature of any problems your readers identified with your work.

1. Time Management: (for additional information, see Managing)

  • Did you manage your time well? What can you do to improve your time management?

2. Purpose: (for additional information, see Consider Your Purpose)

  • Were you able to stay focused on one topic or did your work wander? How well are you following instructions?

3. Audience: (for additional information, see Consider Your Audience)

  • Did you provide the examples your audience needed?

4. Persona or Tone: (for additional information, see Voice, Tone, and Persona)

  • What did you readers think of your tone and persona?

5. Collaborating, Revising, and Editing: (for additional information, see Collaborating, Revising, and Editing)

  • Did your peers evaluate a draft of your document? If so, did their responses help you in a meaningful way?

6. Editing: Did you consistently violate any rules of standard English? (See Grammar Resources for problems with standard English.) What grammar and punctuation rules or principles are you having difficulties with?

Learn how to use self-reflection and responses from readers to improve your writing.

Historians and philosophers are fond of saying that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This observation is equally valid in regard to your development as a writer. Rather than putting yourself down for making errors, remember that you are in school to learn.