Responding to an Instructor's Comments

All of us have gotten back a paper with so much red ink that we didn't know where to begin. I know this has happened to me. I remember times when I said to myself, "I worked hard on this paper, but apparently that wasn't good enough for the professor." I wouldn't even look at some of the comments, because I took them personally — as insults to my intelligence. Naturally, this belligerence didn't help me revise the paper.

Getting your instructor's feedback on your writing can be a painful experience. After all, if you put work into a paper, you expect to do well, and any suggestions can hit a lot harder than they were really meant to. And if you didn't put work into a paper— well, you will probably receive more comments than you can handle easily.

Here are a few pointers that can help you respond constructively to feedback:

1. Remember: there's probably less wrong than you imagine at first glance.

Many of the marks you see on a paper are likely to be sentence-level corrections, indicating typos or awkward constructions. If you have a chance to revise, such errors will usually take only a short time to rectify. And if you don't have a chance to revise, you can still watch for these problems in your future writing.

2. Think of the instructor's comments as advice, not as criticism.

"Your paper could be better" is not the same as "Your paper is bad." No one expects you to produce a prose masterpiece; the point of writing college papers is to improve from one assignment to the next. Instead of feeling intimidated by the comments on a paper, study them closely to figure out what the instructor is looking for, and seize the opportunity to learn from your mistakes.

3. If you disagree with a comment or don't understand it, talk with the instructor.

Whenever you find a comment on a paper confusing or misguided, discuss it with the instructor. As long as you approach the meeting in the right spirit, without feeling defensive about your writing or combative about your grade, the discussion can be illuminating for both sides. You may come to understand issues in your writing that weren't clear to you before, and the instructor may see that you had reasons for approaching a topic in a particular way.

In addition to speaking with your instructor, you can always consult the tutors at the Writing Resource Center. We can help you develop talking points for your discussion with the instructor, or offer advice on your next paper if that discussion leaves you with questions.

So: keep a level head if your paper comes back laden with comments. It's not as bad as it seems.

Improving Your Paper

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