Giving feedback on poor writing: How do you approach it?

It can be difficult to criticise someone’s writing. And perhaps even more difficult to be at the receiving end. And it will not be made easier if it concerns a course that does not revolve around language at all. Here is some advice on how to increase the chances of successful feedback.

If you stick to these tips and approaches when giving feedback to a student about poor language use (or feedback in general), chances increase that you can reach the student and that you can have a constructive conversation about the problem. And about the way the student can work systematically to improve his/her writing.

It is about the language, not the person

It is not the person but the person’s writing that is inadequate, and that is an important difference. This applies to all feedback: Stick to what you both know – in this case a text – and do not guess about the person’s background, intention or his/her qualities or general ability. You do not know about the background or the person’s history that led to the text you have in front of you. Regardless what you think or suspect, you cannot know for sure and you definitely do not know everything.

In other words, you should criticise the text, not the person. Explain the issues of the text. The conversation will then be about something that exists irrespective and outside of the two of you as individuals. This makes it easier to receive the feedback.

Be concrete

Give concrete examples of weaknesses and give examples of how the student could put it instead. Do not banter or make fun of errors, no matter how tempting it may be!

If it is difficult to follow arguments, sentence structures, ambiguous wording, etc., the language use is not “bad” but it “does not fill its function”. This makes a big difference for the person who receives the feedback.

Assume the approach that (at the moment) the problem is yours

Yes, we mean it! What will the poor writing lead to? At the moment, you are the one who fails to understand the text. You are the one having problems with it. Assume that the person who wrote the text knew what they tried to say but that the text failed to convey it to you. At least this reader had problems understanding the text.

This type of approach is much easier to handle for the person who wrote the text, compared to an approach where they are made out to be a bad writer. It is easier for the student to distance him-/herself from the inner conflict between either accepting criticism and asking for help or trying to defend themselves by defending the text. In other words, let the conversation be about the text and the issues you identify as a reader.

Show your concern about the consequences for the student, particularly in the long term

Stress your concern and that you care about the student. “I worry that your writing may prevent you from successfully completing your studies.” “Will you be able to communicate adequately in your future work?” “If I do not understand, there is a risk that others may struggle to understand as well.”

Suggest strategies to solve the problem

Do not demand, suggest. Give suggestions on how the student can practice to improve his/her writing. Acknowledge the effort it will take. You do not have to solve the problem, but try to give suggestions on how the student can proceed.

Be prepared for emotions

Improving language skills may require a lot of work and it can therefore be difficult to receive negative feedback on this. Do not back away if the student shows emotions but stay in the situation. Simply sit still, wait and allow the student time for it to sink in. Be prepared to repeat what you have said since negative feedback can be difficult to take in straight away.

Do not fight to be right. If the student indicates that he/she does not accept your assessment, ask a colleague for help through a second opinion. Do not become angry if the student thinks that you are being unfair; it is not your responsibility to ensure that he/she successfully completes the course or programme. But do not back away from your assessment, just be humble to the possibility that you might be wrong.

Respectful feedback is a gift and it is up to the receiver to turn it into something useful.

/Tomas Jansson, UPE

Suggested reading

Jansson, T., & Ljung, L. (2017). Project Leadership for Individuals and Teams (2nd ed.). Studentlitteratur.
[Chapter 10 in particular contains a series of concrete examples of how to give and receive feedback – and examples of pitfalls to avoid.]

Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (2006). Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. Damm förlag AB.
[A classic little book about handling difficult conversations.]

Suggested reading in Swedish

Tedgård, N.-E. (2010). Konsten att lyssna—Metod för professionella samtal. Liber.
[About 100 pages of easy read with practical advice and tools on how to become better at talking about difficult matters.]

Hilmarsson, H. T. (2020). Samtalet: Förbättra din professionella kommunikation genom empati. Studentlitteratur.
[Plenty of concrete examples of conversations that illustrate what can make a difficult conversation run amok, or help the parties process the actual matter at hand.]

Crafoord, C. (2005). Människan är en berättelse: Tankar om samtalskonst (2nd ed.). Natur och kultur. [Clarence Crafoord’s book is about difficult conversations in unequal situations where one party – you – is the one with the upper hand. How can you handle it without crushing or trampling over the other party? It is, for example, about daring to explicitly address the problem.]