giving feedback on writing – be specific


One of the characteristics of academic life is feedback. We get it whether we want it or not. Students feedback on our teaching. Reviewers feedback on our papers. Supervisors feedback on draft thesis texts. Of course, most of us also have to not only receive feedback but also give it. We give feedback to people when we read their work in progress. This may be as part of a formal writing group, or when your best mate asks you to look over something they have written.

Sometimes feedback can be incredibly helpful. At other times feedback – well you know all about Reviewer 2 – is soul destroying because it’s belittling, patronising and rude, aimed at the person and not the writing or the teaching.  A lot of feedback, however, is not this. It’s just vague, general and really hard to grasp. What does this mean, you wonder? What am I meant to do with this?

So how do you best give feedback? Well, obvious really. When we read a drafty text, it’s helpful to remember the kind of feedback that we find most useful – and that is almost always feedback that is specific. Feedback that says something particular. Specific feedback gives you something to go on. You know what’s at issue. You can either reject it or deal with it.

So let’s start with the good stuff so we can see the point of being particular.

Rather than simply saying something like This is such a great paper, it is more helpful to the writer to give some details about the specific strengths of their writing.

  • The anecdote you used at the start was a really effective way to communicate the context
  • The methods section was succinct but gave me all of the detail I needed to know so I could trust your account
  • The ways in which you discussed the literatures without losing sight of your work was really informative.

And so on.

This kind of specific feedback is convincing – you have actually read the text, you are not just being nice for the sake of it, or being positive because you are nervous about the response you’ll get. What’s more, specific feedback tells the writer what they should keep in this draft and what they can continue to do in their future writing.

Being specific in feedback can feel scary. Particularly if it’s not all positive. We are often afraid to say anything critical for fear that the person on the receiving end won’t be able to deal with it. That’s sometimes true of course. Some people really don’t want feedback at all. And it is usually a good idea not to overwhelm people, not to load up with too much detail all at once.

Yes, but… Most often it’s the indeterminate feedback that people feel worst about. That’s because it leaves them clueless.

Comments like “ I really didn’t quite get what you were trying to say” or “ This example didn’t work for me” are unhelpful as they simply leave the writer knowing that there was something amiss, but they don’t have any idea what it is. What do they have to do to make something “ work for you”? What unknown piece of the text can they rewrite so that you “get it”?

Most writers prefer feedback with some level of detail. Rather than feeling at a complete loss, they have concrete pointers to what they might need to do.

So you could for example say

  • Your argument doesn’t work for me.

At least the writer knows it’s the argument that is at issue. But you could say something much more specific like

  • Your argument doesn’t work for me because you haven’t yet taken any counter views into account
  • Your argument doesn’t work for me because there isn’t enough evidence provided
  • Your argument doesn’t work for me because there seems to be a step missing between saying x and then saying y.

You could say

  • The ending of the paper was weak

Or you could say

  • The ending of the paper was a summary of what had gone before. There was no So What
  • The ending of the paper needed a discussion of the implications of the study
  • The ending of the paper would have been much stronger if you had argued that the study had clear pointers for policy and practice. And perhaps there was also more research that needed to be done about x.

You could say

  • I got lost

Or you could say

  • I got lost because I needed some kind of map at the start where you told me what was going to happen
  • I got lost because the heading and subheadings didn’t help me keep track of the argument
  • I got lost because you changed from past to present tense continually and I didn’t know when you were talking about what you’d done and when you were talking about what you are arguing now.

More detailed feedback tells the writer what you were hoping to read, what you were expecting them to have done. And this level of detail provides them with something to look at and something that they can change if they want to.

Giving writers specific feedback – and I really am not talking about correcting grammar here, but feedback which is geared to particular aspects of the writing – asks more of you as a reader.

You have to be alert to your responses as you go through the text. You might note the points where you thought something might have gone awry. You then have to consider your responses, and work out what the problem was. Why did you feel this way at this point in the paper? What did you expect to see that was missing? What was there that seemed out of place? What did you want more or less detail about? What did you need to be told?

And giving feedback is always about thinking about how you would like to be treated. You don’t need kid gloves. But feedback does need to be appreciative – you have to acknowledge what has been done as well as what might be improved.

Let’s be honest. Some people do approach the task of giving feedback determined to point out each and every problem they encounter. This is not helpful. It is undermining. Don’t let this be you. The point of feedback is to be discriminating about the key issues that you see. If there are big structural questions, then deal with those and leave the rest alone.

Finally, it’s important not to worry about whether you are good enough, whether you know enough to provide feedback. If you are doing doctoral work, or beyond, then you are already a very experienced reader, and that means you know quite enough to make an informed comment.

And an informed, specific and appreciative comment is most often just what a writer wants to hear. It gives them something they can get their teeth into and chew over. It gives them food for thought, and potentially a direction for revision.

Be that reader. Give specific feedback.


Post inspired by Joni Cole 2006 Toxic feedback. Helping writers survive and thrive

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, feedback, Joni Cole, specific and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to giving feedback on writing – be specific

  1. Pingback: Behind the scenes, stories of stress, writing, and supervision – The hidden curriculum in doctoral education

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s