Tag Archives: academic writing

Tips for giving constructive criticism on academic writing

In the course I’m teaching on academic writing for graduate students, the students are required to practice peer review: they have to give constructive criticism on drafts of one another’s essays. Some students have asked how to present criticism constructively: “My feedback on —‘s paper is quite critical,” wrote one student. “Any pointers in how I can manage the tone better would be appreciated, I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.”

Giving criticism constructively is tricky, but it does get easier with practice. And while expectations of tone and etiquette can vary (for instance, anecdotally, academics in Europe don’t mince words the way North Americans do), academia tends widely to uphold standards, for peer review and critique, of politeness, professionalism, and focus on a given argument’s substance (theory, method, evidence, reasoning) and form (structure and style). These are standards of constructive criticism: criticism intended to support and strengthen writing in progress.

So how to put the principle of constructive criticism into practice? Here are a few of the rhetorical moves I use in giving constructive criticism to students’ work and colleagues’ papers:

    Give good news with bad news: begin by saying something positive about the work, something you think it does well, before moving on to discuss something you don’t like or something it doesn’t do well.

    Substitute imperative for negative: instead of saying something negative (e.g. “this paper doesn’t review enough articles”), say it as an imperative (e.g. “this paper needs to review more articles”). this also makes your criticism action-oriented; you provide specific steps and actions the recipient can take.

    Recognize intent amidst error: try to identify and if possible praise what a given bit or whole piece of writing is trying or intending to do – and then go on to discuss how it could better realize or achieve that intent.

    Be specific: this is related to the imperative idea above – constructive criticism means criticism that can be concretely acted on by its recipient. so avoid general or vague judgments about the whole work or about its component parts – instead, highlight specific ways to improve the work.

The practice of constructive criticism is vital in studies and research – especially in the distributed, “virtual” classrooms like those of #AthaU, where students aren’t actually facing one another, and where the risks are consequently higher for either remaining too reserved or getting rude. But constructive criticism is an eminently “transferable skill,” too, one that is important in lots of different work and social situations and communications. Since we’re trying to have a civilization here, after all.

If you know of other tips or rhetorical moves for giving constructive criticism, please feel free to share them in a comment below.

Academic essay writing: pointers and resources

I recently learned a highschool friend is now pursuing a BA with #AthaU, and in response to their stated frustration with academic essay writing, I offered some pointers and resources. These might be useful for undergrad students generally – I know frustration with academic writing drives whole black markets (and I boo those black markets!1) – so voilà. (I’ve made some comments less #AthaU-specific, like the discussion of the campus student writing service.)

Here are some various tips and resources for effective, successful academic essay writing.

First, here’s the article by Cory Doctorow on writing for 20 minutes a day; it’s worth a read for his reasoning on this process, and for the related tips that can make the 20 minutes as productive as possible. http://www.locusmag.com/Features/2009/01/cory-doctorow-writing-in-age-of.html

Next, something I teach students is writing as a four-stage process: Drafting, Revising, Editing, and Proofreading. Sometimes the stages overlap, but understanding the importance of each stage means two things:
1) leaving enough time to follow this process (not leaving the whole writing job to the last minute); and
2) giving yourself enough time between stages to walk away from the work, for at least a day or two, so that you return to it with refreshed perspective (and so that you don’t burn out trying to push a project through to completion)

For any given essay assignment, you should try asking your tutor or instructor if you can send them your working thesis for the essay, or a point-form outline of the essay, or both. Some instructors welcome this consultation on process; others see it as conflict of interest (i.e. they can’t mark something they’ve helped put together in the first place). Do not ask an instructor to look at a complete first draft (unless this is required in the assignment instructions) – that would be a direct conflict of interest. But it is always worth asking if you can consult with the instructor on your initial thesis and approach to arguing it. (It could help the instructor to look more favourably on the final submission too.)

As a student, you can and should take advantage of your university’s student writing services office. This kind of service provides one-on-one feedback and coaching; the service works best once you have a draft essay for them to look at. Most universities’ writing service offices (like #AthaU’s Write Site) also have websites of their own that are full of tips and references for effective academic writing.

AU’s Write Site, for its part, has lots of publicly accessible essay writing tips and resources. Some examples you might find helpful:
Writing Resources: http://write-site.athabascau.ca/writing-resources.php
Writing Genres and Samples: http://write-site.athabascau.ca/writing-genres.php
Research Writing: http://write-site.athabascau.ca/research.php

Getting the most out of your university’s writing coaching and consulting means contacting that office earlier instead of later. They’re sometimes quite busy, especially around common deadlines (e.g. midterm time, and ends of semesters).

You can also use a free online service called Paper Rater to check your own work for grammar, style, etc.: http://paperrater.com/

I can’t recommend highly enough a blog by a dedicated academic writing teacher; it’s called Explorations of Style and it covers just about anything and everything you want to know about academic writing, from macro-level uses and purposes to micro-level details of style and composition: http://explorationsofstyle.com/

Lastly, here are some sample rubrics of standard expectations for undergrad essay composition. One is at the Write Site: http://write-site.athabascau.ca/marking-scheme.php
The other is one I’ve adapted from my own undergrad learning and early TA work; it’s more specific to writing essays on literature, but some principles work across the curriculum: https://landing.athabascau.ca/pages/view/10019/grading-comments-for-essays-on-literature

I hope you find some of these tips and resources useful. If so, please share a comment, if you can spare a moment for it, to let me know which – if any – proved particularly helpful. (Or to alert me to others you’ve found useful.)

1. As I expected, this post is drawing traffic from would-be “essay writing service” vendors – that is, vendors of academic fraud and plagiarism. As a teacher of writing, I categorically condemn and actively prosecute plagiarism: the fraudulent presentation of another’s unacknowledged work as one’s own. Plagiarism is academic misconduct and the student who attempts it incurs serious penalization, from a failing mark to expulsion from studies. Writing is a transferable, in-demand skill: learn it, don’t outsource it.