1.7 Feedback: No One Writes Alone

Nancy Ami; Natalie Boldt; Sara Humphreys; and Erin Kelly

Writing can be easier when you get help from others. Your course instructor may include a “peer review” activity in your classes. To improve your writing (and to help others improve), you may wish to seek feedback on both your writing process and what you are ready to submit to your instructors.

When we write, we may actually forget our reader. We write from inside our heads and know exactly what we mean. However, when others read our writing, they may find there are gaps in content. They may not be able to follow the logic or order of the ideas. They are not “inside” so may be missing the critical information that lends meaning to the text. Now what? Peer review to the rescue!

When we receive feedback from course instructors, teaching assistants, writing centre staff or peers, we become aware of what we are missing in our writing and can respond.

Please do watch this handy video about the peer review process and what it looks like to give effective feedback (the video is called “No One Writes Alone” and it provided the inspiration for the title of this section).[1] You’ll note that Suzanne Lane, the Associate Director of Writing at MIT, gives excellent advice we can all benefit from: be sure you review your peer’s work from a reader’s perspective. You are giving the writer your experience as a reader and that’s invaluable.


What kind of feedback should you ask for?

You may have received a grading rubric or checklist which clarifies your course instructor’s expectations. You may see these expectations grouped in possible categories such as organization, content, sentences/grammar, and format. Each category may include specific criteria (e.g., “strong thesis statement” or “argument clarity”) with accompanying marks for fulfilling this criteria.

Do you have an assignment that requires writing? Maybe take it out now and see if you can find the rubric or how your writing will be marked. You could ask for feedback in areas included on the rubric/checklist, focusing on particular points that you feel unsure about. You might also ask for input on an area you’ve had feedback on before, if you’d like to know whether you’re improving.

Sometimes receiving feedback is hard. You may feel hurt by what you hear. Remembering that feedback is a gift helps reduce that sting. Respond to feedback by thanking the person who gave it to you and carefully listening to (or reading) the advice. You may wish to ask questions for clarification so that you are sure you understand what you might do to improve. You may also wish to ignore the feedback if it does not make sense or departs from your course instructor’s expectations. As the writer, you are in the driver’s seat and can choose whether or not to implement the suggestions you receive.

How should you offer feedback?

American writer and cartoonist Frank A. Clark says, “Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.”[2] In offering feedback, your goal is to help your peer improve. To help your peer, you need to deliver your feedback in a way that your peer will hear.

First, you want to emphasize what is working well in your peer’s writing using scripts like these: “I really like the interesting anecdote you include in your introduction” or “Your sentences are easy to understand.”

Second, you can highlight opportunities for growth. You may want to try asking questions:

  • “Are you sure that ‘contemptation’ is a word?” or “What do you mean when you say, ‘the be all is sublime’?”
  • You can offer suggestions from your writing experience: “When I find one of my paragraphs is going on for several pages, I consider breaking it down into shorter paragraphs.”
  • You can speak to your experience reading the text: “I am getting sleepy as I read your middle section. I’m having trouble following your main point.”
  • Finally, you can point your peer to resources you’ve found helpful: “When I need help with writing paragraphs, I look at what our instructor’s posted on the CS site. I also use the Purdue Online Writing Lab” (visit the OWL’s page “On Paragraphs[3]). Hearing about the resources you’re using might inspire your peer to check them out.

Reading others’ writing opens our eyes to our own strengths and challenges as writers. When we read our peer’s writing and find gaps between ideas, we are reminded of our own need to ensure that connections are clear. Struggling to locate key points in long, repetitious sentences shows us the need to write clear sentences in plain language. Scrutinizing facts our peers share and wondering about sources highlights the importance of citing sources. Reading the writing of others is a window to improving our processes and products.

Getting feedback from Writing Centre staff

You can get feedback on your writing and access helpful resources when you visit your university writing centre. Most universities provide academic writing support for students through writing centres, which may be located in libraries, in departments, or in centres dedicated to student academic success. Please jump down to the Resources section for information about the Centre for Academic Communication.

See your writing course and writing centre as communities that YOU belong to.

Writing is complex work, and the best writers rely on others for constructive feedback. Seeking feedback on your writing through peer review, course instructor comments, and writing centre appointments draws you into a community of writing practice. Think of writing as a craft, something that is learned over time, an activity that has no ceiling on its performance.

  1. “No One Writes Alone: Peer Review in the Classroom – A Guide for Students,” MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing, uploaded on January 31, 2017. YouTube video, 6:33, https://youtu.be/tY8CX0J3ILc.
  2. http://www.greatthoughtstreasury.com/author/frank-clark
  3. “On Paragraphs,” Purdue Online Writing Lab, Purdue University, accessed May 25, 2020, https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/academic_writing/paragraphs_and_paragraphing/index.html.


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Why Write? A Guide for Students in Canada Copyright © 2020 by Nancy Ami; Natalie Boldt; Sara Humphreys; and Erin Kelly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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