How to ask for feedback that will actually improve your writing

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We’ve all received feedback on our writing that just wasn’t very useful. Maybe you wrote a paper for class and received back a list of grammar and spelling mistakes that you’ll never look at again. Maybe you showed your personal statement to three different people and were confused when you received three contradictory pieces of advice for strengthening it. Or maybe you worked hard on a research essay that you felt really proud of, only to receive comments that were so critical they made you feel like never writing again. All these readers probably wanted to help you become a better writer, but they didn’t know what kind of feedback you needed to help you improve.

You might be surprised to learn that getting better feedback can be as simple as asking for it! Learning to identify and ask for the feedback you need from readers is a crucial skill for becoming a stronger writer, but many students are never taught how.

Here are some tips for starting to make your feedback work for you.

When to ask for feedback

We often get feedback on a piece of writing at the end of an assignment when we aren’t planning to revise further. Asking for feedback before an assignment is due, on the other hand, gives you the opportunity to put it into practice. You might also find different kinds of feedback useful at different points in the process. For instance, if you have written a first draft of an essay that isn’t due for another week, you may be most interested in feedback that can help you revise and rewrite parts of the essay. If your essay is due tomorrow, you may be more interested in identifying and fixing errors and polishing the introduction and conclusion. Ideally, you would ask for both kinds of feedback, just at different times.

Whom to ask for feedback

Every reader brings their own perspective to your writing, so they will be better at noticing some of its features and not others. You can use this to your advantage by being strategic about asking different kinds of readers for their feedback. For instance, your parents or close friends might be good readers for a personal statement because they know you well and can tell whether your writing sounds like your authentic voice. But these people won’t necessarily know what college admissions readers look for in personal statements, so you should have a counselor or tutor read your statement as well. Similarly, a teacher or professor who knows a lot about the topic of your paper can easily identify factual errors or implicit assumptions that you can address to strengthen your argument. But if you decide you want to publish your essay online, you should talk to an editor who knows the audience for a particular website and can read your piece with them in mind. Keeping your reader’s perspective in mind can help you know what kind of feedback you should ask them for.

What kind of feedback to ask for

It may feel awkward at first to tell someone who is reading your writing what to look for. But most readers actually appreciate clear instructions: remember, they want to help you! As you become a more experienced writer, you will learn more about your strengths and weaknesses and know what to ask for. And keep in mind that when you ask for feedback and whom you ask will also shape the kind of feedback you ask for.  

Here are a few questions that are almost always useful to ask your reader:

  • What is my argument in this essay? If your reader responds with an argument that is close to what you had in mind, then you know you have effectively communicated that argument in your essay. If they respond with something different, you might discover that you need to be clearer—or, you might discover an even better argument that was under your nose all along!
  • What patterns do you notice in my writing? Every writer finds it hard to notice patterns in their own writing: maybe you start every paragraph in the same way, use vague language because you don’t yet understand a part of your topic, or tend to repeat yourself. It’s easy for readers to notice these patterns, though, and, once you’ve seen them, you’ll find it easier to identify them again in the future.
  • Which moments in this essay confused you? Knowing when your communication breaks down is invaluable for identifying ways to improve your writing. Sometimes, readers will help you find moments in your writing where you need to give more context or define a key term. Other times, they will show you moments that confuse you too! In these moments, clarifying your writing will mean clarifying your thinking, which can improve the piece as a whole.

Working with unhelpful feedback

Reflecting on the feedback you want from readers can also help you figure out what to do with the unhelpful feedback. For instance, by looking through the list of grammar mistakes, maybe you can identify one or two consistent patterns to work on correcting in your next essay. Or by considering the different perspectives your readers bring to your personal statement, you can understand where their advice is coming from and respond accordingly. Perhaps you will even try to schedule a follow-up conversation with your critical professor to talk through your essay and figure out where your communication broke down.

Learning how to ask for feedback will make you a more mature writer: your teachers and other readers will be impressed by your self-reflection and desire to improve. Most importantly, though, asking for the feedback you need will help you to take charge of the writing process, making it into an experience you can actually learn from—and maybe even enjoy!

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