by Chris Ervin
In the Writing Center, we provide students, faculty, staff, and alumni with feedback on all kinds of writing. As faculty and staff, we are similarly called on by our colleagues to provide feedback on writing like grant applications, reports, article drafts, letters, and emails. We all want to provide helpful and supportive feedback to our colleagues, and below I share an approach we use in the Writing Center to provide that kind of supportive feedback. This approach creates space for the writer to gain valuable information from you as a reader, while also emphasizing their agency and decision-making as the writer.
Step 1: Share Your Observations
We begin by making observations about the text. As readers, we navigate between reading to understand and reading to look for potential. You may have noticed that when meaning is clear, we continue reading without confusion. When it’s not clear, we sometimes engage in meaning-making ourselves or look for potential solutions to problems we’re experiencing.
However, in our feedback process, we focus on our observations. After all, our colleagues want us to help them see the draft in another way; they generally don’t want us to rewrite the draft for them. Observing can be as simple as noticing in a non-evaluative way. For example, “I noticed that the report consistently uses language and technical jargon from your discipline.” Paired with the next two elements—a reader’s response and prompting questions—observation is a valuable starting point for prompting reflection on a draft.
Step 2: Respond as a Reader
The next step is giving the writer a sense of how you understand the text. In other words, respond as a reader of the text. A reader can be many things: engaged, bored, confused, surprised, and so on. This information is valuable to a writer who may want to understand how their draft is being experienced or interpreted.
An example of a reader’s response that might follow the observation above is, “As someone outside of your discipline, I had trouble understanding some of the technical jargon—particularly in the third and fourth paragraphs.” Paired with observation, the reader’s response suggests one possible experience of a reader. By itself, this response is already valuable for a writer, as they might be able to determine a next step just based on the observation and response. We also have a third step though that can prompt the writer’s thinking on next steps.
Step 3: Ask Authentic Questions
The final step is asking authentic questions that help the writer reflect on the draft. The questions can prompt a writer to think about how to shape a draft in ways that accomplish their goals—whether that’s with revision or leaving the draft as-is.
Questions that prompt reflection are typically questions you as the reader do not have the answer for. If you are asking a question you already know the answer to, you may be providing advice based on what you think the draft should be rather than creating space for the writer to imagine possibilities. For example, questions that relate to example in the last section might be “Who is the audience—or are there multiple audiences? What level of technical expertise on this topic will your reader(s) have? What familiarity would your audience(s) have with jargon and discipline-specific language?” With these questions, you as the reader are not directing the writer to change or reduce the technical jargon; instead, you’re prompting the reader to consider the audience’s needs with regard to jargon.
Facilitation vs. Direction
Following the steps outlined above can maintain a supportive stance as a reader—facilitating thinking rather than directing the draft or the writer’s decisions. This allows the writer, our colleagues, to maintain control of their work and draft while also gaining valuable information that can help them in decision-making and next steps for the document.