The Critical Role of Thoughtful Feedback

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.” – Anne Lamott

Growing up as an over-ambitious honors student, I used to be terrified of submitting my first drafts of written assignments. I had a wonderful English teacher named Mrs. McCallum, a tiny British woman with dark hair, thin glasses, and a determined gait that made many in my school wonder whether to fear her or give her sweets. She was one of the most beloved teachers in our little private school, but I was always petrified to submit to her any of my book reports, literary analyses, or research papers. She had what her students lovingly deemed “the red pen of death”, and anytime there was a particularly rough assignment, you knew your paper would look like a crime scene. She was notoriously critical grader because she believed in a concept of “beauty through the fire”, of harshly critiquing written work to create perfect writers. Because I was so afraid of seeing that red ink – what I deemed to be an indicator of her disappointment and disdain of my work – I held on to my written work tightly, keeping it away from any other eyes for as long as I could until the submission deadline. It wasn’t until college that I truly began to share my written work with my friends because I finally didn’t feel the pressure to have the “perfect paper”, to actively have help in molding my creative works. I will forever be grateful to Mrs. McCallum for instilling in me my love of writing and literature, but I as I am beginning to consider how to instruct my FYC courses, I now know that her approach to feedback and comments on student papers was, for lack of a better word, demoralizing.

This week’s threshold concept in Naming What We Know addresses writers and their need to learn more about their craft. The particular concept that stood out to me, though, was Collin Brooke and Allison Carr’s essay “Failure Can be an Important Part of Writing Development”. They correctly observe, “We often forget, however, that successful writers aren’t those who are simply able to write brilliant first drafts; often, the writing we encounter has been heavily revised and edited and is sometimes the result of great failure” (62). We have been brought up to believe in the romantic notion of what some people call “the author-god”, a writer who is so brilliant they can simply put a pen to paper and create the next best-seller. This notion of a “natural born writer” in conjunction with overly critical writing assessments in the classroom only debilitates legitimately wonderful writers from learning how to mold and tailor their work to become masterpieces. Brooke and Carr state:

In the writing classroom, when assessment is tied too completely to final products, students are more likely to avoid risking failure for fear of damaging their grades, and this fear works against the learning process. They focus instead on what the teacher wants and simply hope to be able to get it right on the first try (63).

Therefore, it is my goal as a teacher to encourage what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts”, the ability to write something on the first try without fear of academic penalty in order to foster creativity as much as possible. No one is a perfect writer, and sometimes failing on the first (or even second) draft is just a normal part of the writing process. In the classroom, we teachers need to treat failure as a learning lesson, not as “a symptom of inadequacy or stupidity” (Brooke & Carr 63). Teachers need to begin to give legitimate feedback on assessments.

Sometimes it feels like teaching would be simpler if we could just give a “pass” or “fail” to a paper and move on. However, this will not help in shaping emerging writers’ crafts.

So how does this look in practice? In her article “Responding to Student Writing”, Nancy Sommers analyzes the importance of leaving good quality, individualized feedback and commentary on initial writing drafts. She observes:

…we comment on student writing because we believe that it is necessary for us to offer assistance to student writers when they are in the process of composing a text, rather than after the text has been completed. Comments create the motive for doing something different in the next draft; thoughtful comments create the motive for revising (149).

Regarding the topic of thoughtful commentary to encourage student revision, Sommers also notes that “most teachers’ comments are not text-specific and could be interchanged, rubber-stamped, from text to text”, which creates “a series of vague directives that are not text-specific” (152). This is something that, as a student, I’ve witnessed on more than one occasion with classmates in my undergraduate courses and even my graduate courses as well: teachers simply copying and pasting the same feedback from submission to submission. It has left me, and many of my peers, confused about if there was anything specific to change to make my individual writing better, and I have even wondered if my professors read my work at all.

I understand how easy it may be to take that approach, from a teaching perspective. Sommers herself refers to how long grading papers may take, especially in a class with a large amount of students. It can be daunting and tedious, but as writing instructors, isn’t that essentially what we have signed up for? How can we, as people who love writing so much we wish to share that love with our students, not help our students truly become better writers themselves if we essentially “rubber stamp” our feedback to “pick up the pace”? I know I may sound idealistic and potentially naïve about expected workload in conjunction to a personal life, but as a hopeful writing instructor, I hope to I will be properly equipped and prepared to instruct thoroughly. Leaving tailored feedback on my students’ papers will assist me to “help them evaluate what they have written and develop control over their writing” (Sommers 148).


Mari’s Musing

As a member in a family of teachers, and a blossoming educator myself, I’ve already encountered what it is like to have to choose between watching a movie with my husband or sitting at the dining room table with papers spread out around me as I grade. Teachers in this country are overworked and underpaid, but whenever I consider the work/life balance I’m supposed to set for myself, I encourage myself to approach my students’ work with resilience and dedication. Students are not going to have the same writing and may even fail at the beginning, but it is our job to create better writers through diligent and thoughtful feedback. As Sommers concluded, “Written comments need to be viewed not as an end in themselves – a way for teachers to satisfy themselves that they have done their jobs – but rather as a means for helping students to become more effective writers” (155).

Works Cited

“Anne Lamott.” Steven Barclay Agency, barclayagency.com/speakers/anne-lamott/.

Brooke, Collin, and Allison Carr. “Failure Can Be an Important Part of Writing Development.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 62–64.

“Diagnosing and Responding to Student Writing.” Dartmouth Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, 12 Nov. 2020, writing-speech.dartmouth.edu/teaching/first-year-writing-pedagogies-methods-design/diagnosing-and-responding-student-writing.

Gray-Grant, Daphne. “Are You a Natural Writer? Here’s Why That’s Bad.” Publication Coach & Grant-Gray Communications, 30 June 2015, www.publicationcoach.com/natural-writer/.

Parrott, Jill. “Some People Are Just Born Good Writers.” Inside Higher Ed , 17 Nov. 2017, www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/11/17/good-writers-are-made-not-born-essay.

Sommers, Nancy. “Responding to Student Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 33, no. 2, May 1982, pp. 148–156.

“Teachers Are Underpaid and Overworked.” The Eagle Angle, 14 May 2018, www.theeagleangle.com/7465/opinions/editorial-teachers-are-underpaid-and-overworked/#:~:text=Remember%20that%20under%20all%20this,other%20role%20in%20the%20school.

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    […] about my experience with my high school English teacher, who wielded what I lovingly termed “the red pen of death”. In that post, I discussed how grading and revision are such a detrimental step toward true […]

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