Giving feedback that encourages engagement with writing and thinking

Image from Linchi Kwok’s blog

We have posted on this blog about feedback this year already, but I have been thinking a lot lately about what counts as useful feedback and what kinds of feedback constrain rather than enable a writer’s further engagement with their own writing. So, I thought a less ‘academic’ take on feedback might be useful.

I am a student, too, as readers of this blog will know, so I am currently getting and reading and working with a lot of feedback from my supervisor, and while some of the comments are tough because of all the extra thinking they ask me to do, all of them are actually helpful. But more than that, they encourage me to go deeper in terms of my engagement with and thinking about my own writing. They ask me to rethink things I have written; to question connections between parts of the text that I may have said are there but are not clear to the reader; to make links clearer and to edit out repetitive or vague comments that add little to my text or make it less coherent. They ask me to think, and to question and to challenge myself as a writer to grow and learn from errors and missteps. This kind of feedback, I think, is ideal. Writers only become more capable and more confident as they write, and they need to know what their readers think, and where the writing makes sense and where it does not. Further, if there are errors and missteps they need advice on how to correct these and get the writing onto the right path.

Feedback, then, needs to do two things: encourage further engagement between the writer and their writing, and offer useful advice on how to make that engagement constructive. Feedback that just tells you things are wrong, or vague or irrelevant is at best unhelpful and at worst demotivating, especially when no advice is given on what you could do differently to meet the reader or marker’s standards. It discourages students from doing more thinking, and reading and writing. It constrains further learning and growth. But this constructive, helpful and engaging feedback is not easy to give, and it can take time. It requires the reader to read carefully, and to step into the role of a critical friend, rather than just an assessor. The reader needs to think about what the writer has tried to achieve, and comment both on what has worked well, and also what has not. Rather than simply pointing out mistakes the reader needs to engage the writer, asking questions that will guide their thinking (‘could this paragraph make more sense if it came before the previous one rather than after? Think about the ideas you are linking together here’). The reader needs to offer advice that gives the writer choices (‘I would cut this section out because you have made this point already in the first part of the chapter. Maybe you could blend the best pieces of each section together to make one strong section earlier on’). The reader needs to encourage the writer realistically, so that hey know where they are in terms of the standards set and also what they still need to do to reach them (‘This is a good start, and the introduction and conclusion are well-written. However, parts of your argument are not well supported by evidence from the readings, so you will need to revise these, supporting your claims with relevant information where needed’).

The reality, often, is that when we hand in a piece of work we really want to be finished with it because we always have something else to move on to. Feedback, however, and the revisions that it asks for, are a necessary part of writing, whether you are writing an essay, a thesis or a novel. Mediating feedback by talking to students about it and explaining your own thinking as their reader is one way of foregrounding the role feedback plays in the writing process, and the fact that writing is a process and not just a product. Making time and finding creative ways of giving this kind of feedback can pay dividends in getting students, slowly, to learn how to read feedback, think about it and revise their writing. There are many different ‘tools’ you can use, like getting students to work out assignment criteria with you and give guided peer feedback, or getting students to submit essays on Google Drive and doing oral feedback as you read their essays. Whatever the tool, and however much feedback you give or however often, a guiding principle should be that it gets the writer to a next step in their writing process, and facilitates their own further engagement with their writing.

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Lessons learned and lessons shared: writing advice from writing tutors

This was a fun post to devise and also to write. In a recent staff meeting I posed the question: ‘what advice would you give yourself about writing if you could go back in time to yourself as an undergraduate student, or yourself starting out with your postgraduate degree?’ This is what we came up with, and we would like to share it with all of you. There are 20 pieces of advice, in no particular order:

1. Procrastination is not always a bad thing. Taking a break from a piece of writing and doing other things can lead to greater clarity when you can go back to it with fresher eyes.

2. Critical friends are an essential part of the writer’s ‘toolkit’. It’s scary to ask for feedback but if you ask the right people and take their advice, it will help you to grow as a writer.

3. Revisions almost always take longer than you think they will. Make notes about how much time writing takes you, and learn from this when you plan future writing tasks and revisions so you can plan your time realistically and avoid frustration.

4. Learn how to use the MSWord shortcuts and tools well. They can save you lots of time and make the technical side of writing less stressful.

5. Don’t underestimate the importance of giving yourself time to think. Thinking is an essential part of doing good writing – the thinking you do before, during and also after you produce a piece of writing all enriches the writing process and the writing itself.

6. For postgraduates, grounding yourself solidly in the field in which you are doing research before you start coming up with research questions is helpful. Read, read and then read. And make good notes!

7. Develop a system that works for saving your files and readings so that you can approach your writing tasks in an organised way. This saves hours looking for files and source documents that could be spent writing and revising.

8. Keep a journal – take note of where your notes come from: which reading were you writing about and what is the full reference. Create a good system for keeping track of your references, and use the journal to assist you in writing summaries in your own words of the relevant points and arguments made by different authors.  This will help you to be more organised, and also to write more comfortably in your own ‘voice’.

9. Save your drafts with separate file names, and develop a logical system for doing this (like Draft1_Eco paper_date). This helps you to keep track of your own development as a writing, and can also be encouraging when you see how far you have come. At postgraduate level especially, saving multiple drafts means you can cut chunks of good writing out of a final draft but still have them saved to use in a conference paper or journal article where they may be more relevant.

10. Keep the topic you are writing about clear in your mind while you are reading and writing; this will keep you on track and make sure that you don’t read  and write about irrelevant or off-topic ideas and information which will confuse you and your readers.

11. Every day should be a writing day, especially for MA and PhD students. All the small bits of writing add up, even if you are scribbling informally in a journal about ideas you have had. A paper, a thesis, a dissertation – these are all written one paragraph at a time.

12. Read, read, and also read! Start reading on a topic you are writing about as early as you can before the due date and read carefully, making notes as you go. Try to summarise the main ideas and arguments that are relevant to the topic you are writing about or to your research questions. Confident writers are readers.

13. Use the work of writers and thinkers you admire and whose work you are using in your own papers and research to help you find a writing voice or style that is relevant in your field and also feels comfortable for you. Find your ‘writing heroes’ in other words :-).

14. Make sure you understand the key arguments you are drawing on in what you are writing well before you get tangled up in the writing. This can help you to stay on topic and write clearly. Often, especially with theory, depth is better than breadth, but this can also depend on your field.

15. Writing is not a ‘paint-by-numbers’ exercise, which is often what makes it hard to ‘teach’. You need to find your style of writing by writing as often as you can and getting feedback from an advisor you trust, like a tutor, a lecturer, a peer or a supervisor.

16. Writing is not a skill, it’s a practice. You only get better at it if you practice it, and you can only practice by doing it. Writing for yourself every day, in a research or reading journal, can help you to grow in your thinking and writing.

17. Planning is an important part of writing so don’t skip this step. Make time to develop and plan or a basic structure for your essay or chapter before you write, so that you have something to guide you.

18. Save your writing in more than one place. Email it to yourself, or sign up for a cloud service like Dropbox or Google Drive (among others) so that you never have to be let down by a computer than crashes or a flashdrive that gets lost or breaks.

19. Writing can be difficult, and when you are working on a big piece of writing like an MA or PhD thesis it can also be lonely. Find yourself cheerleaders who can encourages and motivate you, even if they can’t help you with your writing.

20. Writing shouldn’t always be a chore. Writing should also be an activity you can enjoy. If you find academic writing, or any writing, tough, try to look for the bits you do enjoy and use that feeling to help you through the bits that are less enjoyable. There is almost always some part of writing you can enjoy, even if it is just handing in a finished final draft! 🙂

Revisions are the hardest thing to do

Image from learnnc.org

Image from learnnc.org

I’m just going to come out and say it: I dread doing revisions on my written work. I have two big pieces of writing sitting on my desk right now, waiting to be revised and rethought about and reapproached, and I am trying to pretend that they are not there. One is a paper I am writing for a journal, with a colleague, and the other is the first three completed chapters of my PhD thesis. I am spending a lot of time fixing my reference list, and reorganising my desktop folders and refiling readings in order to avoid having to do these revisions. But it’s not the writing that is putting me off, it’s the thinking.

I have realised over the years that this is the hardest part of the revision process, and I think this is what students may be feeling overwhelmed by when they come to the writing centre and we give them advice and guidance on revisions they could and should do in order to improve their written work. Thinking is hard work. Or rather, academic thinking about theoretical and abstract ideas and how they apply to a particular argument or question is hard work. Often, thinking in the revision stage of the writing process is harder than the initial thinking that helped you write draft one, largely because you may have to unthink ideas that are irrelevant or misplaced or even wrong in the context of what you are reading and writing about. And then you have to think new ideas, and work out how these might fit with the older ideas that are good, and can stay. And often – almost always for me – this thinking process happens while I am rewriting pieces of the text that need to change. So I think and write, rather than think and then write. This often means that I go through a few drafts in revising my work before I am happy with what I have written. It’s a process in the true sense of the word – it’s tough, and can take a long time, and is very demanding of my emotional and mental resources. But I grow as I do it, every time, and I learn more about what I am writing about as well as how to write in ways that will make my work credible and readable.

But it is hard work. And I don’t like doing revisions because it’s difficult, especially if there has been a longer period of time between the first draft and the second draft, and it’s time consuming. Getting back into the right headspace takes effort, and often I want to be done with that piece of writing and move onto the next one, so I sometimes also feel resentful of the intrusion on my new thinking and writing spaces. But, I have also learned, for all this moaning, that the revision process is necessary and even good for you for a reason.  It helps you to realise that your thinking on any topic you are writing about is never really done. You could revisit a first year essay in second, and third year and as a postgrad, for example, and right very different versions of that essay which would hopefully show the widening and deepening of your knowledge and learning, and also the growth in yourself as a writer. The revision and rethinking/writing facilitates your growth as a writer and also the deepening of your knowledge and understanding as you work on clearer and more credible ways to articulate what you know and what it means in the context of the argument you are making. When we write and think about what we know we are forced to think about what it means, and why others need to read about it. We are forced to be articulate in ways that challenge what we think about our own writing and the topics we are writing about, so revising our work also makes us better scholars. Or, it can at least with the right help along the way.

Revisions can’t just be done by the scholar with the assumption that if you say ‘this needs revision’ they will know why and how. Often students hand in work that they know is not finished yet, or good enough yet, but they are stuck and can’t work out how to improve it on their own. They need guidance from those who know about the kind of writing they are doing, and also about what they are writing about. They need feedback that recognises what they have done well, and that can point out the gaps (and give suggestions on how to fill them), and probe thinking by asking the right kinds of questions. All writers need help, even the very good ones. This is why editors, reviewers, readers exist. We, at the writing centre, are one kind of reader or reviewer that can help undergraduate students think about and revise their writing. Lecturers and tutors in the disciplines are another.  Feedback that helps writers to make choices about their writing and understand where they are going wrong, why, and how they could get onto the right track is hard to give, but it is an essential part of the revision process. And the revision process is an essential part of students’ growth and intellectual development as they become knowers in their field. It is hard, yes, but it’s also ultimately rewarding when the thing you write receives recognition and praise. It makes all the hard work worth it.