How Much Red Ink Should You Use?

One of the biggest challenges writing teachers face is to determine how much criticism to give developing writers.  If you try to correct everything, the writer may retain nothing except a sense of failure.  So you have to adjust your feedback accordingly. 

 Generally Speaking:  

Weak writers need to work on the basic argument and logical flow of ideas:

  • Think out loud with them, help them to organize their thoughts as they speak.
  • Once you agree on a point, help them come up with support for it – again, ask them questions (lead if necessary)  

Average writers need to work on grammar, especially fragments and run-ons.  The weaker the writer, the simpler the sentences should be. 

Stronger writers need to work on mining for richer vocabulary and better transitions.  Use 10 Rules for Adding Bling to help them make their writing more interesting.

Strongest writers should be challenged even more.  Ask them to find the greatest weaknesses in their papers.  Play “devil’s advocate” and disagree with their main points just to make them defend them more strongly.  Have them read their papers out loud! Whenever a writer finds that a sentence is a mouthful, have her rewrite it.

In Sum:  Some Basics for How to Give Feedback on Writing 

First:  Content and Structure

  • Does the writer make a strong point?  If not, allow her to talk through her ideas and ask questions that will help her determine which point she wants to make.
  • Does the writer back up her point well? If not, ask him how he can defend his main point.  Are there passages from the text that he can use to defend what he is saying (if he is arguing a point)?  Can she put her ideas in a more logical order (if she is explaining a point)?
  • Has the writer considered opposing views? If the writer is arguing a point, it is useful to consider the opposing side.  This can be a great way to transition into a new paragraph (e.g., if you are writing a paper against cloning, you might begin your second supporting paragraph with: “The Frankenstein Society recently argued forcefully that human cloning would save lives and ultimately prolong our existence.  But at what cost?”)
  • Does the writer answer “so what?” in the conclusion? Why did the writer write this in the first place? Why do we need to know this?  

Then, Paragraphs, Transitions, Definitions and Grammar  

  • Does the writer use paragraphs correctly?  If not, review the five paragraph essay (first paragraph= introduction, next three paragraphs=supporting points, final paragraph = conclusion)
  • Does the writer use transitions?  If not, help her to practice moving from one point to the next – talk it through, then have her rewrite.
  • Does the writer define all terms? Remember, a good paper can be understood by anyone – even someone unfamiliar with the material.
  • Does the writer use too many run-on sentences or sentence fragments?  If so, encourage him to writing in simple, short sentences – for a while. 
  • Are there subject/verb/pronoun agreement and other problems?  If the writer has never been taught grammar (and many students these days are not), you will have to help him learn it.  DON’T PANIC: There are plenty of resources out there. Most SAT prep books, for instance, provide a quick way to cover the basics. 

Finally, Style

  • Does the opening paragraph grab you?
  • Are there too many passive or tired verbs?
  • Are there opportunities to redefine boring nouns so they seem fresh (Remember Abe Lincoln — instead of “our democracy,” he wrote “our government of the people, by the people, for the people.”)
  • Is there too much telling and not enough showing? (Remember Barack Obama– Instead of “We need to create more jobs,” he talks about “the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, and every walk of life.”)
  • Are there too many clichés and mixed metaphors?
  • Is the paper too wordy?  (if so, have the writer go through and eliminate all words (sometimes sentences and even paragraphs!) that are not necessary to making his point.)
  • Is the writing easy on the ear? The ear is a writer’s best friend. If a writer can not read a sentence out loud without difficulty, he needs to rewrite it.
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