In my last post, I wrote about the importance of limiting and prioritizing comments on rough drafts (specifically, at the formative feedback stage, before final versions are completed and before grading) and the importance of responding to organization, audience concerns, and content before mechanics, grammar, and style. In this post, I want to expand on some pointers for responding to content.
Thesis statement/Claim: Identify the thesis statement (or claim) and decide if it is clear and appropriately placed. Generally, academic essays (which we’ll assume most students are writing) make a claim or argue a thesis, and generally it is expressed in a short statement in the introductory section. In some cases, the thesis may come at the end of the essay, usually when the writer wants the reader to share in his or her chain of reasoning. Often, you’ll find novice writers put the thesis at the end in a first draft simply because they have not really discovered their thesis until they have written it.
Another problem you’ll often see is writers who confuse the thesis statement with a statement of the topic or a forecast of the essay organization. The statement of the topic is a broad statement about what the essay addresses or perhaps the statement of a problem, issue, or research question ( e.g., health care for undocumented immigrants). The forecast statement explains the organization of the document or announces what it will do. An example of a forecast statement would be: “In this report, we will review the literature on health care for undocumented immigrants, present the results of our survey of health care providers, and suggest solutions for managing care for this group.” The thesis statement may vary a bit by type of writing, but it always makes a claim, presents a hypothesis or suggests a solution to a problem, as in “Undocumented immigrants should receive the same benefits as full citizens in any health care reform act.”
Appeals to Audience: According to Aristotle, the orator (and we can extend this to the writer) has three major ways to appeal to the audience and thus gain assent. The first, pathos, is to appeal to their emotions. In much academic writing, a little pathos goes a long way. The second, ethos, is an appeal to the audience’s sense of the writer—the audience will be more open to assent if the writer is perceived of as a person of good sense, good will, and good morals. Generally, scholars can establish their ethos by being logical, appearing objective, using credible sources, and showing knowledge of their subject. Logos is an appeal to the audience’s sense of basic logic. The claim and supporting evidence must make sense and be adequately supported.
Types and Amount of Evidence: Evidence may take many forms, including the use of examples, citations from experts, facts, and data. Determining what types and how much evidence is appropriate depends upon topic, discipline, and purpose; when you are reviewing a draft, be on the alert for whether evidence is appropriate and sufficient.
Fallacies: Look for logical fallacies as your read drafts. (We have a handout that explains some of the most common to help your students.) Novice writers have a tendency to over generalize, make unsupported assumptions, or misrepresent opposing views.
Accuracy: It’s no good being logical if the facts are incorrect.
Counterarguments: Most novice writers fail to anticipate and address objections to their claims. Even if the draft makes a strong argument without fallacies, you can suggest students anticipate and address counterarguments.
Citation and Documentation: See an upcoming post on some ideas about how to help students get this right. Common errors include mixing different documentation styles, using direct quotes where paraphrase or summary would be more appropriate, not working citations gracefully into the text, misquoting or quoting out of context, and failing to provide page numbers when needed.
Let me remind you that I don’t think you should address all of these issues in every draft. I provide this as a blueprint to help you focus your comments. Asking a few pointed questions about accuracy, pointing out an occasional fallacy, or suggesting an ethical appeal can be productive ways to help students improve drafts and can lead clearer or more critical thinking.