10 Types of Essay Feedback and How to Respond to Them

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The moment of truth has arrived: you’ve got your marked essay back and you’re eagerly scanning through it, taking in the amount of red pen, and looking at the grade and hastily scrawled feedback at the end.

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After deciphering the handwriting, you’re able to see a brief assessment of how you’ve performed in this essay, and your heart either leaps or sinks. Ideally, you’d receive detailed feedback telling you exactly where you fell short and providing helpful guidance on how to improve next time. However, the person marking your essay probably doesn’t have time for that, so instead leaves you very brief remarks that you then have to decode in order to understand how you can do better. In this article, we look at some of the common sorts of remarks you might receive in essay feedback, what they mean, and how to respond to them or take them on board so that you can write a better essay next time – no matter how good this one was!

1. “Too heavily reliant on critics”

Image shows rows of library shelves.
Approach your reading with a critical mindset, rather than agreeing with whatever you read.

We all fall into the trap of regurgitating whatever scholarship we happen to have read in the run-up to writing the essay, and it’s a problem that reveals that many students have no idea what their own opinion is. We’re so busy paraphrasing what scholars have said that we forget to think about whether we actually agree with what they’ve said. This is an issue we discussed in a recent article on developing your own opinion, in which we talked about how to approach scholarship with an open and critical mind, make up your own mind and give your own opinion in your essays. If you’ve received this kind of feedback, the person marking your essay has probably noticed that you’ve followed exactly the same line of thinking as one or more of the books on your reading list, without offering any kind of original comment. Take a look at the article linked to just now and you’ll soon be developing your own responses.

2. “Too short”

If your essay falls significantly short of the prescribed word count, this could suggest that you haven’t put in enough work. Most essays will require extensive reading before you can do a topic justice, and if you’ve struggled to fill the word count, it’s almost certainly because you haven’t done enough reading, and you’ve therefore missed out a significant line of enquiry. This is perhaps a sign that you’ve left it too late to write your essay, resulting in a rushed and incomplete essay (even if you consider it finished, it’s not complete if it hasn’t touched on topics of major relevance). This problem can be alleviated by effective time management, allowing plenty of time for the research phase of your essay and then enough time to write a detailed essay that touches on all the important arguments. If you’re struggling to think of things to say in your essay, try reading something on the topic that you haven’t read before. This will offer you a fresh perspective to talk about, and possibly help you to understand the topic clearly enough to start making more of your own comments about it.

3. “Too long”

[pullquote]“The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter” – Blaise Pascal[/pullquote]It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s actually much easier to write an essay that’s too long than one that’s too short. This is because we’re all prone to waffling when we’re not entirely sure what we want to say, and/or because we want to show the person marking our essay that we’ve read extensively, even when some of the material we’ve read isn’t strictly relevant to the essay question we’ve been set. But the word count is there for a reason: it forces you to be clear and concise, leaving out what isn’t relevant. A short (say, 500-word) essay is actually a challenging academic exercise, so if you see fit to write twice the number of words, the person marking the essay is unlikely to be impressed. Fifty to a hundred words over the limit probably won’t be too much of an issue if that’s less than 10% of the word count, and will probably go unnoticed, but if you’ve ended up with something significantly over this, it’s time to start trimming. Re-read what you’ve written and scrutinise every single line. Does it add anything to your argument? Are you saying in ten words what could be said in three? Is there a whole paragraph that doesn’t really contribute to developing your argument? If so, get rid of it. This kind of ruthless editing and rephrasing can quickly bring your word count down, and it results in a much tighter and more carefully worded essay.

4. “Contradicts itself”

Image shows a snake eating its own tail, from a medieval manuscript.
It can be good to present both sides of the argument, but you have to decide which side you agree with.

Undermining your own argument is an embarrassing mistake to make, but you can do it without realising when you’ve spent so long tweaking your essay that you can no longer see the wood for the trees. Contradicting yourself in an essay is also a sign that you haven’t completely understood the issues and haven’t formed a clear opinion on what the evidence shows. To avoid this error, have a detailed read through your essay before you submit it and look in particular detail at the statements you make. Looking at them in essence and in isolation, do any of them contradict each other? If so, decide which you think is more convincing and make your argument accordingly.

5. “Too many quotations”

It’s all too easy to hide behind the words of others when one is unsure of something, or lacking a complete understanding of a topic. This insecurity leads us to quote extensively from either original sources or scholars, including long chunks of quoted text as a nifty way of upping the word count without having to reveal our own ignorance (too much). But you won’t fool the person marking your essay by doing this: they’ll see immediately that you’re relying too heavily on the words of others, without enough intelligent supporting commentary, and it’s particularly revealing when most of the quotations are from the same source (which shows that you haven’t read widely enough). It’s good to include some quotations from a range of different sources, as it adds colour to your essay, shows that you’ve read widely and demonstrates that you’re thinking about different kinds of evidence. However, if you’ve received this kind of feedback, you can improve your next essay by not quoting more than a sentence at a time, making the majority of the text of your essay your own words, and including plenty of your own interpretation and responses to what you’ve quoted.
Another word of advice regarding quotations: one of my tutors once told me is that one should never end an essay on a quotation. You may think that this is a clever way of bringing your essay to a conclusion, but actually you’re giving the last word to someone else when it’s your essay, and you should make the final intelligent closing remark. Quoting someone else at the end is a cop-out that some students use to get out of the tricky task of writing a strong final sentence, so however difficult the alternative may seem, don’t do it!

6. “Not enough evidence”

Image shows someone magnifying part of a plant with a magnifying glass.
You may feel the evidence for your statements is obvious, but your reader might disagree.

In an essay, every point you make must be backed up with supporting evidence – it’s one of the fundamental tenets of academia. You can’t make a claim unless you can show what has lead you to it, whether that’s a passage in an original historical source, the result of some scientific research, or any other form of information that would lend credibility to your statement. A related problem is that some students will quote a scholar’s opinion as though it were concrete evidence of something; in fact, that is just one person’s opinion, and that opinion has been influenced by the scholar’s own biases. The evidence they based the opinion on might be tenuous, so it’s that evidence you should be looking at, not the actual opinion of the scholar themselves. As you write your essay, make a point of checking that everything you’ve said is adequately supported.

7. “All over the place” / “Confused”

An essay described as “all over the place” – or words to that effect – reveals that the student who wrote it hasn’t developed a clear line of argument, and that they are going off at tangents and using an incoherent structure in which one point doesn’t seem to bear any relation to the previous one. A tight structure is vital in essay-writing, as it holds the reader’s interest and helps build your argument to a logical conclusion. You can avoid your essay seeming confused by writing an essay plan before you start. This will help you get the structure right and be clear about what you want to say before you start writing.

8. “Misses the point”

Image shows a dartboard with darts clustered around the bullseye.
Make sure you focus on the important points.

This feedback can feel particularly damning if you’ve spent a long time writing what you thought was a carefully constructed essay. A simple reason might be that you didn’t read the question carefully enough. But it’s also a problem that arises when students spend too long looking at less relevant sources and not enough at the most important ones, because they ran out of time, or because they didn’t approach their reading lists in the right order, or because they failed to identify correctly which the most important sources actually were. This leads to students focusing on the wrong thing, or perhaps getting lost in the details. The tutor marking the essay, who has a well-rounded view of the topic, will be baffled if you’ve devoted much of your essay to discussing something you thought was important, but which they know to be a minor detail when compared with the underlying point. If you’re not sure which items on your reading list to tackle first, you could try asking your tutor next time if they could give you some pointers on which of the material they recommend you focus on first. It can also be helpful to prompt yourself from time to time with the question “What is the point?”, as this will remind you to take a step back and figure out what the core issues are.

9. “Poor presentation”

This kind of remark is likely to refer to issues with the formatting of your essay, spelling and punctuation, or general style. Impeccable spelling and grammar are a must, so proofread your essay before you submit it and check that there are no careless typos (computer spell checks don’t always pick these up). In terms of your writing style, you might get a comment like this if the essay marker found your writing either boring or in a style inappropriate to the context of a formal essay. Finally, looks matter: use a sensible, easy-to-read font, print with good-quality ink and paper if you’re printing, and write neatly and legibly if you’re handwriting. Your essay should be as easy to read as possible for the person marking it, as this lessens their workload and makes them feel more positively towards your work.

10. “Very good”

Image shows a wooden box marked "Suggestion Box."
It’s always OK to ask for more feedback.

On the face of it, this is the sort of essay feedback every student wants to hear. But when you think about it, it’s not actually very helpful – particularly when it’s accompanied by a mark that wasn’t as high as you were aiming for. With these two words, you have no idea why you didn’t achieve top marks. In the face of such (frankly lazy) marking from your teacher or lecturer, the best response is to be pleased that you’ve received a positive comment, but to go to the person who marked it and ask for more comments on what you could have done to get a higher mark. They shouldn’t be annoyed at your asking, because you’re simply striving to do better every time.

General remarks on responding to essay feedback

We end with a few general pieces of advice on how to respond to essay feedback.

  • Don’t take criticism personally.
  • Remember that feedback is there to help you improve.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for more feedback if what they’ve said isn’t clear.
  • Don’t rest on your laurels – if you’ve had glowing feedback, it’s still worth asking if there’s anything you could have done to make the essay even better.

It can be difficult to have one’s hard work (metaphorically) ripped apart or disparaged, but feedback is ultimately there to help you get higher grades, get into better universities, and put you on a successful career path; so keep that end goal in mind when you get your essay back.

Image credits: banner; library; snake; magnifying glass; dartboard; suggestions box