Commenting on Drafts, Not Final Papers

Commenting on Drafts, Not Final Papers

The College of New Jersey

Mary Goldschmidt, Ph.D.




When colleagues ask Joyce MacAllister how to help their students improve their writing, she argues right off the bat that three faulty assumptions need to be discarded:


1. Instructors “should write a lot in the margins and between the lines.”


2. Instructors ought to know and use a lot of specific grammatical rules and grammatical terms.”


3. “The most effective responses  . . . are instructor-written comments on the final copy.”


All three beliefs are false. (59 emphasis added)


~“Responding to Student Writing” in Teaching Writing in All Disciplines, ed. C. Williams Griffin.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1982.  59-65. 



Although MacAllister was writing in 1982, the practice of writing extensive comments on final drafts, including both mark-ups in the body of the paper and a final note addressing strengths and weaknesses, is still the norm today.  For many faculty, final comments become a way to “justify” the grade, or, in worst case scenarios, to express dismay or frustration with what the student has produced.


But scholarship in composition and rhetoric has shown repeatedly that comments on final drafts have no effect on student learning because the grade has already been assigned, and students simply do not pay attention to what is written at this stage.  (Or, if they do, they contest what was written to challenge the grade.)


If we step back for a minute, however, we realize that the true purpose of our comments on student writing is to help students think more clearly.  Regardless of our discipline, we have assigned papers, to use Richard Larson’s terms, to allow students “to reflect, seek and evaluate information, explore ideas, refine thought, and reach discoveries” (384).[1]


With this in mind, we can see how giving feedback early on in a student’s attempts to grapple with a topic would be the best time to offer assistance.  By the time a student has handed in a final version of a paper, comments can be minimal and can focus on the level of achievement; such comments will be much clearer to students especially if expectations have already been made transparent through a rubric or checklist of some kind.


Yet giving feedback to promote real revision has its own challenges.  The comments we give—no matter what color the ink we use—are often felt as a personal judgment.  How do we give an honest assessment of what the student has done so far, while also suggesting ways for the student to develop their thinking, and improve the structure, organization, clarity, and overall quality of their work?


We have the potential to do many things in our comments on student writing:  correct/critique, direct, guide, prompt, question, or reflect.  As the authors of  Twelve Readers Reading conclude, faculty who provide evaluative comments with moderate levels of direction tend to be more “product” oriented, and assume that it’s their responsibility to intervene to assist in student development.  Faculty who are more apt to pose questions or reflective statements with little or only indirect guidance on revision tend to be more “process” oriented and assume that a student’s development will happen in the right climate.  At the extremes are the authoritarian responder who takes on the role of editor, and the analytical responder who takes on the role of reader (focusing only on his or her understanding of the text); somewhere in the middle is the advisory responder who blends the best of both approaches.


Acknowledging that all of us have at some point engaged in many of the styles across this continuum of responding, I’ve listed below what seem to me to be the most common kinds of feedback:  comments, questions, and instructions.  In all three cases, the tone can be supportive or not (the examples I provide are from real papers I have seen over the years). 



1. Evaluative:

  • Frustrated/Impatient:  “You haven’t really thought this through.” or “You’re not trying hard enough!” “My biggest problem with the paper is . . .”
  • Respectful or encouraging: “Interesting Idea!” or “You made a great connection here.”


  1. Descriptive:  “Your introduction made me expect to hear about X; your paper is about Y.”



  1. More open-ended: “What’s the logic here?” or “What do you think of X’s ideas?”


  1. Targeted: “What is your evidence for this assertion?” or “Do you think X’s point is a good one?  Is X making any unstated, debatable assumptions?



  1. General: “Provide more evidence.” Or “Do more analysis, less summary.”


  1. Specific: “Relate this point to the ideas in the previous paragraph.” Or “Be sure to respond to opposing viewpoints.” Or “Move this paragraph to page 3.”


Instructions are not necessarily always the best choice; it depends on how well the student writer can take an observation (“Your paragraphs do not flow as well as they might”) or a question (Is this the most effective location for this paragraph?”) and translate this into a revision.


The trick is knowing how to transform a comment, question, or instruction into a suggestion for action.  “Why are you going in this direction” or “How does this relate to the previous paragraph?” might become: “Readers often expect explanations of how the last point you made relates to a new point that you’re developing. Given the complexity of the ideas here, make those connections explicit in a transitional sentence here.”


I hope these examples provide touchstones for the kind of feedback you want to give your students.  

[1] “Writing Assignments:  How Might They Encourage Learning?” in Twelve Readers Reading.  Richard Straub and Ronald Lunsford.  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1995.  375-85.