Skip to main content

Print version

Responding to rough drafts: Avoid the trap of grading twice

One of the most crucial pedagogical techniques when it comes to communication, spoken or written, is providing feedback. But if a little feedback is good, does it stand to reason that a lot of feedback is better?

Frequent feedback is probably better, but for a given performance, the quality of the feedback is far more important than the quantity.

A colleague recently asked me an excellent question: “While I haven’t given grades on rough drafts, it sounds like I might be giving too much feedback because I kind of feel like I am grading students’ papers twice in a sense. So what are your best practices for reviewing rough drafts and giving formative feedback? Do you identify just a few areas to address in revisions?”

The short answer is yes, I do identify  a few areas. And I have a method for doing so.

Step 1. Read through the paper once—quickly—to get a sense of the overall point and organization. Read with empathy. What do you think the writer is attempting?

If you’re systematic, you might like to keep specific questions in mind:

  1. What is the writer’s main purpose (to inform, persuade, defend a thesis, make a statement, express a view, entertain, or show a grasp of course knowledge) and point (or thesis)?
  2. How does the writer show awareness of or consideration for the audience?
  3. How thoroughly does the writer defend the claim or develop the ideas?
  4. What is the principle of organization, and is it clear and effective?

Step 2. During this initial reading, you may hold a pencil or use Track Changes, but use them sparingly. Highlight, circle, or comment on the most bothersome errors, but only those that really stand out as annoying or that impede your comprehension. If an error occurs often, instead of marking it each time, keep a tally on a separate piece of scratch paper.

For example, let’s say I notice a missing apostrophe and, although it does not impede my comprehension, it really irks me. So I circle or highlight it. Low and behold, there’s another one on page 3. So I start a tally sheet: Apostrophes, 2.

Most important: Don’t worry about finding everything! You’ll overwhelm the author and spend too much time on the process.  You just want a sense of what the author is struggling with and what the author is doing well.

Step 3. After the read-through, compose the main comment. Imagine you are doing a review for a colleague. Be civil and think of this as an opportunity for the writer to take the next step in the writing process.

  1. Include something positive. We all need to know what we are doing well so we can do more of it.
  2. Include something to work on, but make sure you prioritize and limit yourself to a few main points. Some areas you can consider:
    • Content. Is there a clear purpose or thesis? Is it well-supported with ample evidence? Would more specifics or examples make it stronger?
    • Audience. Is the audience addressed and considered adequately? Are the details, vocabulary, and tone appropriate? Will the audience find it readable?
    • Organization. Does it make sense? Could it be rearranged for better effect, better clarity, or better readability?

Next add anything on style, grammar, wording, formatting, spelling, or punctuation that came up often on the tally sheet, but keep it general and simple. For example, I might mention “I noticed at least two missing apostrophes, so it would be smart of you to double check contractions and possessives.” Or, if the problems are greater, I might write, “Once you deal with the audience issues, I suggest you review the paper more carefully for grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. I noticed quite a few, some of which I’ve pointed out by placing a check in the margins.”

Step 4. Read through one more time, this time checking your work and adding a few marginal comments. If you put a ? in the margin on the first read-through because something seemed muddled, add a comment about that. Try to engage in some dialogue such as counter argument related to the content, as in “That’s a good point, but how would Smith respond?” or “Is that fact accurate?” If a section seems inelegant or wordy, go ahead and suggest a revision—but only once, as in “Here’s a wordy sentence. You can revise like this.” The next time you see a wordy section, just write “wordy” in the margins, and if you see it a third time, you might add a mention of it in the end comment.

Step 5. Proofread your comments, and if you are writing them by hand, inspect them for legibility. Once of the most frequent complaints students make about unhelpful comments is that they are simply impossible to decipher.

You’ll find this process also works well with a rubric. Simply use the rubric in Steps 3 and 4. The main thrust of this process is to limit comments to those of most concern and to recognize you are working with a draft, not a finished piece.

One more piece of advice: Describe your process of responding to drafts to your students. Let them know you are neither editing nor writing for them—you are giving them some useful pointers on improving, but they are responsible for the final writing quality.



  1. Venkatraj says:

    Ver useful stuff… thanks

  2. Jose Vazquez says:

    To limit my comments to those of greatest concern, I limit my comments to no more than three items and try to keep those on the same topic. So if the issue is that I found the intro vague, I will comment that I had a hard time determining what the main idea of the piece was. I like to ask questions, so after a comment about my confusion about the main idea I might write: “Was that intentional?” I might reveal what I think the main idea was and explain why I think it did not stand out for me. My second comment might point at organization as a means of reinforcing my impression of vagueness. Or if the organization is good, but the style (such as a string of declarative sentences) detracts from unity or good development, I might point that out. With my quota reached, I stop. I don’t have time to sustain this, and the student doesn’t have the patient to listen. My last suggestion might be that the writer continue a similar analysis on her own.

Leave a Response