• 4-minute read
  • 9th May 2019

How to Give Feedback on an Essay

Whether you’re teaching or just helping a friend, being asked to offer feedback on an essay can be intimidating if you’ve not done it before. We do, though, have a few tips to share on this subject.

Content vs. Quality of Writing

There are two main things you may want to offer feedback on when reading an essay. These are:

  1. The content of the essay (i.e. what the author is arguing)
  2. How it is written (i.e. how well they communicate their argument)

The exact nature of the feedback you provide will depend on the topic and type of essay you are reading. But there are some things you might want to comment on for any paper, including:

  • Spelling, grammar and punctuation errors
  • Overall structure and readability
  • Academic vocabulary and writing style
  • Factual inaccuracies or ambiguities
  • Whether the author provides evidence for their arguments
  • Clarity and consistency of referencing

Ideally, you’ll provide feedback on all of these. However, if you’re simply reading the first draft of a paper to help a friend, you may want to check what kind of feedback they want.

Try, too, to balance the positive and negative feedback. It’s just as important to note things that are good as things that need clarifying. After all, if the author sees nothing but negative comments, they could be discouraged. Positive feedback, on the other hand, is a great motivator.

Comments in Margins vs. In-Depth Feedback

One way of leaving feedback is to make notes in the margins (either on paper or using the comment function in Microsoft Word). These should be short notes related to a specific issue, such as highlighting a misspelled word, an incorrect fact, or a missing citation.

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Marginal feedback.
Marginal feedback.

Try not to leave too many comments in the margins, though. If there is a recurring problem, such as a word that the author has repeatedly misspelled, don’t comment on it every time. Instead, leave a comment noting the pattern of errors. This highlights the issue without overwhelming the reader.

You may also want to provide overall feedback at the end of the paper. Ideally, this in-depth feedback should:

  • Start positive (e.g. This is a well-researched, well-organised paper).
  • Focus on one or two major issues rather than repeating everything you commented on in the margins. If there are too many big problems to pick one or two, you may want to speak to the author in person instead.
  • Provide concrete criticism on specific problems, including page or section numbers where relevant, not just general criticisms (e.g. You are missing several citations in section three, so please check… rather than The referencing in this paper could be improved…).

If you’re offering feedback on an essay that is currently in progress, focus on issues that the author could improve in the next draft. If you’re marking a final draft, however, you may want to focus on what they can learn from the essay’s overall strengths and weaknesses.

Marking Criteria

Finally, if you’re teaching on a university course – or even just marking papers – you should have access to the marking criteria. These will be set by the university or whoever is teaching the class. And, crucially, these guidelines will set out in detail what a good paper should do.

These criteria can also be useful when planning a paper, so it’s worth asking about the marking criteria even if you’re writing an essay rather than offering feedback! And if you’re not sure where to find the marking criteria for your course, check the university website or ask your professor.

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