This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
Working in a writing center, I often help students try to understand their professor’s feedback on their essays. The prospect of not being able to figure out what their professor wants overwhelms them and causes more stress throughout the writing process. If you count yourself among these students, the road to becoming a more confident writer begins with learning how to turn feedback into a plan for future success.
When a professor hands you back a paper, don’t just flip to the last page to see the grade. Find the assignment sheet and any rubric your professor gave you. Sit down and read your original paper along with your professor’s marginal comments. Then, before you get to the last page, try to predict what your grade might be.
While this labor may seem extraneous, there is a good reason for doing it. Your writing and critical thinking skills can’t improve until you refine your ability to judge what a good argument is. Rereading your argument with a fresh set of eyes, and comparing your judgments to those of your professor, helps you to see how far off your own assessment of your work may be.
Turning feedback into a plan for improvement
After you’ve read your professor’s feedback, you can mine it for advice on how you can improve your writing in the future. Start by breaking it down into three categories.
In the first category, group any comments on your grammar and style. In other words, you want to isolate those comments that refer to the quality and clarity of your writing.
With the remaining feedback, divide the comments that focus on the content of your essay from those dealing with the structure and organization or your argument. Feedback on the content of the essay, such as a point you overlooked or a theory you misused, has value in helping you understand what your professor wants, but these comments are often too specific to apply to future papers. However, comments pertaining to the quality and organization of your argument have long-term value because they show you where your argumentative skills can improve the most.
From the comments on your grammar and style, construct a list of the types of errors found in your paper (e.g., misspellings, run-on sentences or comma splices). Put each type of error on a separate line, and use this to make a checklist for your proofreading. In a separate document, record the professor’s comments on your argumentative and organizational skills. Again, focus on finding the mistakes you make on a regular basis, and be as specific as possible in how you write each down.
When you have finished, keep these lists in a place where you can easily find them.
Incorporating that advice into your next paper
The next time you’re assigned an essay, write a rough draft without thinking about the two lists. It can be tempting to try to avoid making all the mistakes you’ve made in the past, but ultimately, that approach distracts you from constructing the basic flow of your argument and slows down the writing process.
Once you have a rough draft of your essay, look at your list of the argumentative skills you need to improve. Pick one and then go through your paper trying to improve that aspect of your argument. If you have a lot of time or a short list, you can work your way through the whole thing. However, understand that developing the skills necessary for making a strong, well-reasoned and compelling argument take a long time to master. Trying to construct the perfect paper in one sitting is an unreasonable goal. Instead, focus on getting better as you go along; like most areas of life, becoming a strong writer takes practice.
When you’re comfortable with the quality and structure of your argument, look at the grammar and style list. Proofreading can be an intimidating process, so break it up into stages to make it more manageable. Read your paper all the way through at least once, catching any mistakes or typos that pop out at you. After the first pass, pick two or three mistakes from your list and focus your attention on finding and correcting those errors first. If you have questions or just need a refresher on grammar and style, then check out some of the free web tutorials and other English language resources available online.
Keep a record of what you focused on improving so that when you get your essay back, you’ll be able to check how successful you were. You may even let your professor know what you were concentrating on fixing so that s/he can provide you with specific feedback on those points.
Once you start getting papers back free of the mistakes you’ve tried to eliminate, start crossing those mistakes off your list, but don’t erase them. Seeing a list with a bunch of items crossed out can be an incredible boost to your confidence and will motivate you to continue improving.
Talking to your professor and other outside help
Meeting with your professors can and should be a valuable part of each stage of this process. They will likely be impressed when they hear about your systematic approach to improving your writing. Providing students with individualized feedback takes a considerable amount time, and many students don’t even bother to read it. You cannot imagine how frustrating it is to spend an entire weekend grading papers only to have students repeat the same mistakes in subsequent drafts.
Before meeting with your professor, prepare specific questions that you would like to ask. Tell your professor that you are trying to improve your writing skills, and ask if s/he has any additional feedback or criticism based on this particular draft. The more specific the questions, the better guidance you’ll get.
Visiting with tutors at your school’s writing center can also be helpful. Writing tutors can provide specific advice on whatever elements you are working on at that time, and some students even find that they can be more honest in expressing their anxieties about writing to someone who they know won’t be grading their paper.
Most importantly, remember that long-term improvement is a cyclical process. You learn more, make adjustments, and find new areas to improve. The end goal of this process should be you feeling proud of the effort you put into your own education. The feeling of accomplishment that can come with systematically targeting and overcoming weaknesses in your own writing can be addicting, and the momentum it creates will push you past your own expectations of your own success.