You’ve been editing for hours. You’re halfway through an 84-page paper, and you’re still not quite sure what the student’s main argument is. The writing isn’t bad per se, but the student tends to favor overly complex expressions. At first you think you’re seeing things, and then you realize, no, the student really has written a single sentence that’s a page long — single spaced. As you try to untangle the intended meaning, you’re tempted to leave a comment reminding the student that while the ancient Greeks didn’t use punctuation, language has come a long way since then.
It’s easy to lose patience when you’re trudging through convoluted writing — especially if writing well comes naturally to you. However, if you’ve ever had your own writing edited, you know how personal the process can be. How an editor communicates with you can make a world of difference.
I know this firsthand because I wrote the second practice order for the Scribbr Academy, Scribbr’s training program for new editors. Although we added grammatical, stylistic, and structural mistakes to make the text more suitable for training, I still think of it as my own paper.
As an English senior editor, part of my job is to review new editors’ work on this practice order to help them grow as editors. Every time I review a new editor’s in-text feedback, I’m reminded of what it feels like to be in the student’s shoes. Many Scribbr Academy editors have given me genuine feedback that I’ve taken to heart. I’ve seen first-hand how a little bit of individualized advice can go a long way toward building a positive relationship with a student.
On the other hand, harshly worded comments hurt my feelings. For example, I’ve had my paper called “incomprehensible,” “nonsensical,” and “unintelligible” — sometimes all in the same sentence. These sorts of comments can leave me feeling defensive and discouraged, even though 10 years have passed since I wrote the paper.
The most important thing I’ve learned from having my work edited so many times is that it’s important to treat students kindly and thoughtfully. When a paper is confusing, boring, or difficult to follow, remember that a real person wrote it. By keeping this in mind, we can make a positive difference in students’ lives.
Here are a few tips on how to write motivating and constructive feedback for students:
Do be specific. Simply stating that a sentence needs to be rewritten can be frustrating for students who have tried their best. Pointing out the problem and how to fix it can help students learn from their mistakes.
Do tailor your comments. Telling a native-speaking PhD student who missed a typo that sentences start with a capital letter might come across as condescending. Similarly, launching into a discussion about an obscure grammatical point might baffle a student with limited English-language abilities. Keep your audience in mind.
Do space out your comments. Students might feel overwhelmed seeing 20 comments in the first two pages; they might also wonder why there are none toward the end. Spacing out your comments will reassure students that you’ve paid equal attention to the different sections of their papers.
Don’t use harsh language. You’re writing feedback to human beings who are often trying their best. Avoid words like “incomprehensible,” “unintelligible,” and “irrelevant,” which might make students feel defensive. Instead, keep your feedback constructive. Focus on potential solutions, not the mistakes themselves.
Don’t phrase your advice as commands. This approach often rubs students the wrong way. Remember that the paper ultimately belongs to the student as the author, not to you as the editor, and word your suggestions as recommendations. You ideally want students to be receptive to your feedback, so it’s important to get them on your side.
Don’t generalize or make assumptions. Stick to the facts. Instead of making assumptions about the student’s education level, race, or background, simply state your observations about the paper at hand.
Don’t be condescending. Treat students as equals. Just because English isn’t her first language doesn’t mean that a student is unintelligent, inexperienced, or otherwise less than. Her expertise simply lies in other areas.