WriteCast Episode 27: 5 Tips for Using Writing Feedback
© Walden University Writing Center 2016
BRITTANY: Welcome to WriteCast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers. I’m Brittany Kallman Arneson…
BETH: …and I’m Beth Nastachowski.
BRITTANY: In this episode, we’ll give five tips for applying feedback that you get on your writing, whether from a writing tutor, a course instructor or professor, or a peer.
BETH: So one of the important things that we like to stress at the Writing Center to help students develop their writing is that it’s really important to both get feedback on your writing and then use that feedback to develop your skills and to revise your writing. So that’s what we’re going to talk a little bit more about today, and as we mentioned in the introduction, the way that you receive writing or who you receive writing from can really vary, depending on your context. So you might have someone at your work review your writing and give you feedback. Or you might be working on a class and have someone in your family give you feedback on your writing. Or you might get feedback on your writing from your instructor, or from the Writing Center. Those are all different ways that you can get feedback. But, in all those ways, it’s important to keep in mind a couple of tips to make the most of that feedback and to actually be able to use and apply that feedback to your writing.
BRITTANY: Yeah, I’m really excited about this topic. When we talk about paper reviews, specifically--so in that context, it’s feedback that you’re getting from a Writing Instructor in the Writing Center—but, even when we talk other feedback with students, that they might be getting on their writing, we talk about what happens in that feedback, but we don’t talk as much about what happens after you get the feedback, or after you read through the feedback. What should you do with it? How do you apply it? What kinds of changes should or shouldn’t you make—those kinds of things. So I think this is a really important topic. I think we use the directive “apply feedback!” a lot without really clarifying what that means. So that’s what we’re gonna do in this episode, is kind of categorize it into five different things that you can do to actually apply the feedback once you get that reviewed paper back.
BETH: And just before we dive in here, Brittany, I thought it would be useful for our listeners to define what we mean when we say “paper review”…
BRITTANY: Oh, totally.
BETH: …Because that is sort of a very specific Walden context. So my guess is we’re gonna use that term a lot, since that is the context that we’re working within. But, for everyone out there, when we talk about paper reviews or paper review appointments, that’s a specific service that the Walden Writing Center offers where students can make an appointment, have their paper reviewed by one of our Writing Instructors, and then that feedback is sent back to the student. So, if you’re working in a different context, just know that all these tips and all this information that we’re going to be talking about today applies to any feedback that you’re getting from your own instructors. Or, if you are getting feedback from another Writing Center, it might be that the appointments are called online tutoring, or tutoring appointments or something like that. It’s all the same, and all really applies in these different contexts. But, we’ll probably be using the phrases “paper review” and “paper review appointment” a lot.
BRITTANY: Yes, thank you so much for that clarification…
BRITTANY: Go ahead…
BETH: You go for it, Brittany, yeah.
BRITTANY: I was going to dive ahead to #1—should I do that?
BETH: Do it.
BRITTANY: Okay. Our very first tip is: don’t take it personally. And I think this is a really important one to remember, and it’s one that we talk a lot about as Writing Instructors in the Walden Writing Center. We try to be really, really careful about this, but no matter how careful the person is who’s giving you feedback on your paper, it can sometimes feel really bad to you as a writer to get a paper back with a lot of comments, or even a couple of comments, if you felt that that paper was really strong in the first place, right? It can feel…you feel really vulnerable when you put your writing out there for other people to comment on, and it can be a really emotional experience to get feedback on your writing.
BETH: It can be really easy to conflate comments on our writing to comments or criticism of our own intelligence or ideas or on us as people…
BETH: And I think it’s really important to remember that any sort of feedback that you’re getting is really just to help you improve your writing so that it’s really as clear as possible for your reader, so that you can achieve your goal of communicating your ideas to the reader. So instead of taking comments as, you know, personal, I encourage you to think more and sort of reframe the feedback and the way that you are receiving it and think about it more as someone really engaging with your writing, with your ideas, and cares enough about helping you develop as a writer to give you that feedback. It’s really more of a way of showing that the person who read your writing is engaging with your writing than a critique on you personally. If that makes sense.
BRITTANY: I hope that that does make sense, because…because we in the Walden Writing Center already do respect Walden students. We come into the instructional relationship that we have with those students with a sense of…certainly a sense of awe at what those students are working towards and all of the different things that they’re juggling. But also, a sense of, we’re kind of all in the same boat when it comes to writing. It seems strange because those of us who work in the Writing Center of course are working in a field that we’re really comfortable with. We are writers—that’s what makes us comfortable teaching writing. So it is something that we feel very confident about.
But at the same time, I think because we consider ourselves writers and we spend a lot of time in this field, we understand that no matter how much time you spend in the field of writing, and how much experience you have as a writer, that never takes away that sense of vulnerability or that sense of…you know, putting yourself out there when you put ideas on a page and give them to somebody else to get feedback. And so, we really get it. We get the experience from the student perspective as well, and we want to make sure that students understand that, that we’re approaching this as an opportunity for us to help you as a student and as a writer, but not as an opportunity to sort of look down on you, or criticize you, or make judgments about you or anything like that. We try to communicate that as much as possible through our paper reviews themselves, but I think it also is helpful for the writer getting the feedback to go into the experience of reading through the feedback with that in mind.
BETH: So the next step we have is for you as a writer, when you get feedback, to pay attention to the patterns in that feedback that you’re getting. So that’s one thing at the Writing Center that we really focus on is that…in our feedback, we’re not there to point out every error or make corrections in the paper, but our focus more is on identifying patterns. I like to say that, as writers, just like we are creatures of habit as people, we are writers of habit as well. And so, there’s going to be certain tendencies that you have as a writer that, as Writing Instructors at the Writing Center, we’re gonna point out and try to work on with you. But patterns are really important to pay attention to because once you identify a pattern or a tendency in your writing, you can then focus on that in subsequent drafts. So that’s also something I like to emphasize with writers is that, you know, maybe in a paper review, a Writing Instructor is talking about missing topic sentences throughout the paragraphs. Well, now you know that’s your tendency as a writer to not include those topic sentences. So you can just watch out for that in other drafts that you’re writing to continue to work on adding those in.
BRITTANY: Right! I love this one, and I think it’s also important to emphasize that working on these patterns will take time and practice, right? That it’s not instantaneous. And at the heart of that is really the difference between what we would be doing if we were simply fixing your paper for you versus what we’re doing in these paper reviews which is giving you instructional feedback, right? So, what we aim to do is help you understand places where you need to improve, or tendencies that you have, these patterns. And for you to build these skills, to build not just the ability to write good topic sentences, but the sort-of self-awareness to know that that’s something that you tend to leave out. And to sort of start building, informing habits of including some of those things that you might leave out. Or, correcting some of those errors that may have been habits for you in the past. At the heart of the second one, the idea of paying attention to patterns, is the fact that we’re hoping that the students that we give feedback to will look at this as a relationship over time where they’re learning something, not where we’re just pointing some stuff out that they need to fix, and then they move on without really internalizing our feedback.
BETH: So what do we have for tip #3, Brittany?
BRITTANY: Tip #3 is to ask questions. The way that we work in the Walden Writing Center doesn’t necessarily invite this because we’re sending papers back and forth with feedback on them. But we really want our students not to be embarrassed to ask for clarity or further help. We really encourage our students to follow up, and I think that this definitely applies more broadly to writers in general, too. So, some examples of questions you might ask are: like, let’s say your Writing Instructor made a certain comment. You might say, “I read this comment that you made, but I don’t really understand what that means.” That gives your instructor the opportunity to clarify, because we can’t know for sure if our instructional comments are making sense on the other end. Or, if your writing instructor made a certain suggestion that you take action in some way, and you feel a little bit paralyzed, you’re not quite sure how to do that, you might say, “You suggested that I do X. But I’m having some trouble getting started.” Again, kind of building off of #2, when we’re talking about paying attention to patterns, that there is a back and forth here, there’s a trajectory to it—it’s not just: get the feedback, make the changes, turn it in and forget about it.
BETH: So the best way to ask questions really depends on your context. So, if you’re a Walden student, and you’re working with the Writing Center, the best way to ask those kinds of questions that you were just talking about, Brittany, is to email [email protected]. That is our general email address, and then, you can ask questions and you’ll get a response, really very quickly, and those questions will go directly to the instructor that you’re working with. So if you had a paper review appointment with a particular Writing Instructor, that Writing Instructor will get those questions if you make sure to ask those questions and say, you know, I had this feedback from so-and-so, and here are some questions I have.
BETH: But the other thing I would say too is that if you’re working in any other context, do find ways to ask questions or ask the person who’s giving you feedback the best way to ask those questions if you’re in a class and you got feedback from your instructor, go ahead and ask your instructor “how would you like me to ask these questions?” or, you know, “would you like me to email them, or post them in the discussion board?” or something like that. Really, open up those communication channels, because that’s the best way you’re gonna be able to get answers and be able to best use that feedback.
BETH: All right. So our next tip is tip #4: to take ownership of both the feedback and the revision process. So it’s a good idea to consider all the feedback that you’ve been given and read it all through, consider it carefully, ask questions when you need to, but then, the revision decisions that you make are ultimately up to you. And I think that’s also something that’s really important to keep in mind. Writing is personal. As much as we just talked about not taking feedback personally, the decisions that you make as a writer are ultimately up to you, and we really want to make sure that you as a writer can take ownership of that process and feel agency to make those decisions. You as the student know the class that you’re writing for, you know the assignment, you know your instructor. And, for example, in the Writing Center, we’re giving you feedback that’s informed—we know about academic writing, and we know as much as you told us in an appointment form—but ultimately, it’s up to you to decide how best to use that feedback.
BRITTANY: Yeah, exactly. I love that idea of agency. That’s something that is really important for student writers to keep in mind in particular, because a lot of times you know the writing that you’re doing as a student is on a topic that’s been assigned to you, and there are—you know, there’s sort of a power relationship involved. There’s a grade involved, there’s whether or not you graduate involved, you know, there’s a lot at stake. But, at the end of the day, this is about you. You pursuing this degree is about you and your goals, and your desire to develop your own ideas and to take ownership of your knowledge and your learning, and writing papers along the way is part of that. And so I think that this is a really important secondary learning that goes on when you’re learning to write, is learning to make decisions about what you put into your writing and what you keep out.
So, it’s what you were saying, Beth, about understanding that we as writing instructors are informed readers, and we’re here to guide the writer in certain directions and we’re certainly here to inform the writer of certain parameters or rules that are put in place by the university or by APA that will help the writer communicate with more clarity. But we really want you as a writer to develop that sense of ownership and that sense of voice, and it’s a tricky line to walk I think. It’s tricky for us as instructors and it’s tricky for students to figure out when do I need to follow the rules, and when can I have some autonomy and some agency in what I want to say, and we’re always happy to engage Walden students in that conversation, too.
So, that kind of bumps us back to #3 a little bit; I think, also, that if you aren’t sure, if there’s something where you’re like, "boy, you know I got this feedback, and I understand that there are maybe good reasons for why I got this feedback, but it’s not quite what I want to say," please let us know, and we will be happy to engage in conversation with you around that and help you navigate that tricky balance between finding your voice and following the rules. It’s not something that’s super cut and dry, and it can be really hard, and I do think it’s something that gets easier with time. Being able to navigate that sense of your own voice, and your own agency as a scholar, and we’re here to help with that as well.
BETH: Yeah, Brittany. One thing that I just wanted to touch on real quickly to wrap up #4 here was that idea that it’s not always black and white. And I think that’s important to keep in mind, when you think about taking ownership and applying feedback and using feedback—the revisions that you make aren’t going to always be black and white. There’s not always a right and a wrong way to revise and use feedback sometimes.
BETH: So I think that’s really helpful to keep in mind, that--there are some rules that you need to follow, you know, particularly APA rules. But for a lot of these revisions, there’s some room for what I like to call playing with what you’re gonna do. So playing around with “maybe this will work” or “maybe this will work” and keeping in mind that there’s that area for you to play with your revisions.
BRITTANY: Yeah, I love that sense of play.
BETH: So our last tip for today is #5.
BRITTANY: #5 is to apply feedback. And again, this is a vague term that we use, and we want to clarify a little bit, you know, what we mean, when we tell students to apply feedback. We mean a lot of different things. I think we certainly mean the four things that we’ve already talked about here. So, right, don’t take it personally, pay attention to patterns, ask questions, and take ownership. But we also mean, once you sort of go through those four things, that you should make changes to your writing based on the feedback that you get. So it’s…and it’s not just going through and making corrections based on the cut and dry suggestions. It’s also engaging in that hard work of deciding which feedback on your ideas you want to incorporate and how you want to incorporate it. One piece to remember about this part is that it takes time applying the feedback, so actually engaging with the feedback and making changes in your draft is not something that you’re gonna just whip through in, you know, 20 minutes. It is gonna take time to engage with some of those more difficult ideas and work them out.
BETH: And to add to that too, Brittany, I wanted to remind everyone about the point we made when we talked about patterns, that, especially if you’re writing a longer paper, the person who’s reviewing your work and, particularly at the Writing Center, you know, we may not be able to review your entire draft. So if you have a 10-page draft, we might be able to review four or five pages. It really varies and it depends—there’s no one set number of pages or numbers of words we can review. But, we might not be able to review it all. And so, it’s important for you as the writer to also take the feedback we’ve given you on the first parts of your draft or certain sections, and then apply it to your other sections—asking questions, looking for patterns, all those things will help you do that, but that’s also another thing that we always sort of talk about applying feedback. And that means applying feedback throughout the draft, not just the pages we’ve read.
BETH: All right. So thank you so much for listening, everyone. We’ve talked about our five tips: don’t take it personally, pay attention to patterns, ask questions, take ownership, and apply feedback. We hope that you will use these as you receive feedback and use that feedback in your writing.
BRITTANY: Thanks so much for listening, everyone! Join us next month for a conversation about writing introductions.
BRITTANY: WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson; my co-host, Beth Nastachowski; and our colleague, Anne Shiell.