The Good, the Bad, and the Unhelpful: Using Feedback to Grow as a Writer

Ever received a comment on something you wrote that really helped you? What about something that really didn’t help or just confused the heck out of you? We’ve all gotten feedback on our work, whether in school or in the workplace. What we make of that feedback can mean everything for growing as a writer, and that central tenet is exactly what Berkeley Connect English Mentor and PhD candidate Michelle Ripplinger emphasized in a recent small-group discussion meeting.

During the discussion, Ripplinger posed two questions to the group: What has been some of the most helpful feedback you’ve received, and what has been the most unhelpful or confusing feedback you’ve been given?

Many students were excited to share their most memorable instances of good and bad feedback and provided some insightful answers to both questions. One student recalled his first college writing assignment: He felt confident he’d written an excellent essay, only to find “So what?” written on the front page of his paper. While the comment appeared at first to be an instance of unhelpful feedback, the student reviewed the rest of the comments and discovered that the teacher was trying to tell him that he had done a good job formulating a question or revealing a trend but hadn’t answered the question his paper set out to ask. This student had been “caught up in the weeds” and had failed to make his paper as meaningful as it could be. The takeaway? All writing that poses a question should be seeking to answer it!

Another student shared her favorite piece of feedback from her community college days, explaining that her writing had the habit of being tangent-filled, answering too many questions or not finishing all her thoughts. One of her teachers summed it up by stating, “It’s better to say something rather than saying nothing by trying to say everything.” This idea resonated with many students who had similar issues in the past.

When tasked with opening up about confusing or unhelpful feedback, students exasperatedly shared stories that ranged from frustrating to hilarious. One student shared a story of a teacher simply writing a question mark on the very first page of her paper, only adding the qualifier of “vague” at a later point. This seemed to be a common trend of unhelpful feedback, with students remembering many times they received unhelpful and unexplanatory comments in the margins of their work, strikethroughs without explanation, or other bits of feedback that couldn’t be used to grow as a writer.

Ripplinger recommended students to always speak directly with their teacher or GSI when they found feedback to be confusing or unhelpful, since this is the easiest and quickest way to resolve problems and prevent future ones. Overall, she reiterated the importance of taking feedback seriously and using it as a chance to grow as a writer and as a student. Not all feedback is helpful, but that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed until you get an explanation!

If you’ve ever had to submit work for review, whether it be academic or otherwise, you have received feedback. Sometimes, that feedback is great and helps you the next time you submit work. Sometimes, you might get a big red “?” on your hard work. Nevertheless, make of it what you can and always strive to be better in what you do. Even the most experienced writers can benefit from editorial feedback, so think of it as a gift rather than a “gotcha!”

posted by Dylan McIlvenna-Davis, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant (Class of ’20)