Providing Writing Feedback

Providing useful feedback to other writers is a crucial skill for any writer because it helps you learn to see papers from other people’s point of view. This guide describes several ways to provide feedback using different software features.

General Overview

You may have participated in writing feedback or workshop activities before that have been less than useful. Maybe other students in a class you were in gave vague feedback telling you something like:

Great job here! I liked the ideas in this paper a lot. Maybe work on the flow a bit? Anyway, great work!

Or maybe you received comments from someone that confused feedback with editing, only pointing out grammatical errors or stylistic choices they wish you would change.

Screenshot of a Word file with comments made by a reviewer all about grammatical and stylistic issues.
Screenshot of a Word file with comments made by a reviewer all about grammatical and stylistic issues.

These experiences can be frustrating, because they’re not that helpful for writers who want to know whether their ideas make sense, whether the structure helps readers learn and follow their arguments, and if the document as a whole has any impact at all. They’re especially not helpful if the writer wants to know something even more specific, like did that example on page 3 land well with readers who don’t know about baseball?

This guide focuses on writing feedback that helps writers address these issues. Basically, giving good feedback means addressing the writer’s concerns. If the writer didn’t ask for specific feedback, you might describe what you see the paper doing (Who seems to be the audience? What does the main point seem to be? How does the structure of the paper work?), evaluate how well the paper does what it sets out to do (working from a rubric if you’re in a class, or maybe just identifying places where the writing seems very effective or where you noticed some problems), and offer some suggestions for how the writer might make some changes (How might the writer amplify aspects of the paper that are working well? How might they improve some of the problems you found?).

This framework of “describe, evaluate, suggest” comes from Professor Bill Hart-Davidson. See him describe it in more detail in the video below:

You can also read more about these strategies and see some examples on Bill’s tutorial page. This page is focused on the writing feedback tool made by his company Eli Review, so you’ll want to scroll down the page past the instructions for using Eli to the elaborations on the “describe, evaluate, suggest” model.

Try More Rounds of Feedback

It is fairly common for writers to seek feedback on what is typically called a “first draft,” although people often have different ideas about what this means. For some, a first draft is the first of many drafts, and they will seek feedback on more than a few of these. For others, the first draft is the only version that will receive feedback, and the final draft is the same as the first draft, only without any grammatical or other mistakes. In most cases, a first draft is a “complete” version of the document.

Instead of waiting until the document is fully drafted, you might experiment with giving feedback at earlier points. Even if you’re not a writing instructor and just giving feedback to your roommate on a paper, it can be helpful to “describe, evaluate, and suggest” at earlier points in the process. Asking a writer to spell out their plan for the paper so that you can give feedback on it can help the writer identify areas where they need more planning or give them extra confidence to try something ambitious. While it can sometimes be difficult to read a messy few paragraphs that don’t have a clear structure, just describing what we’re seeing for writers can be helpful to them.

If you’re going to read multiple drafts, you may want to explore ways to highlight the changes between them. Common word processors like Microsoft Word and Google Docs make this fairly straightforward, either through the “compare” features in Word or Google Docs, or the “track changes” feature in Word. If the writer has made many substantial changes involving moving paragraphs or sentences around, the compare view can sometimes become less intelligible, but overall these views can alert you to pay additional attention to pages that are revised vs. pages that are substantially the same as before.

Finding the *compare documents* feature in Microsoft Word. Comparing documents in Microsoft Word. Finding the *compare documents* feature in Google Docs. Comparing documents in Google Docs.
This gallery depicts the compare documents feature in Microsoft Word and in Google Docs.

In fact, if you’re going to be involved in a series of feedback / revision cycles, it is worth discussing with the writer what tools both of you would like to use for giving and receiving feedback. Google Docs and Word have similar features (both allow comments), but in practice can feel different to use. With Google Docs, it’s not necessary to send email attachments back and forth, reducing confusion as to which is the most recent version.

Word documents provide many useful features for review, and most importantly, when you compare different versions of a file with Word, you can see earlier comments as well (comments do not appear in the Google Docs version history view). This means that you can see how a writers has addressed a previous comment in the new version of the text.

You can read more about different versioning tools and features in the “managing versions” section of the Managing Complex Writing guide.

Feedback Methods

Typically, there are three ways to give feedback on a digital document: notes (often called “comments”), free-form ink (like handwriting), and track changes (or suggestions). Additionally, it is now fairly simple to provide audio or video feedback as well.

Comments

Most word processing applications (Word, Google Docs, Scrivener, LibreOffice, etc.) allow readers to select some text in the document and apply a comment or note to that section. This is also possible in many PDF annotation applications, although typically the note is just positioned on the page rather than attached to a specific range of text. These notes can then be replied to, creating comment threads. This is useful for dialog between the writer and reader, or between multiple readers and the writer. Note, however, that while most PDF applications make it easy for readers to add comments, the only PDF software capable of making comment replies is the Adobe Acrobat program (replies can be made in the free reader version).

A comment and replies on a Word document. A comment and replies on a Google Doc. A comment and replies on a PDF in the Adobe Acrobat program.
This gallery illustrates comments and replies in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, and Adobe Acrobat Reader.

The biggest tradeoff in choosing between these different tools is between “live” online comments and comments that are attached to a particular file on your computer. In other words, the difference between comments on a Google Doc and comments on a Word file saved to your desktop (an Office 365 online Word file would be the same as a Google Docs file in this example).

With Google Docs all comments made on the document are immediately shared with the writer. Sometimes when reviewing a document, you may want to make comments to yourself and later decide how to frame the feedback for the writer. In that case, if you were working with a Google Doc you would need to download the file to your computer and work with it offline, then apply the “official” comments to the Google Doc in the cloud so that the writer could see them. With Word, you can write whatever you want in the comments as you read, then go back and either delete them or revise them.

If you are working with a group of reviewers, however, Google Docs can be especially useful precisely because your comments are immediately available for all readers to view. Additionally, people get notifications through an app or email that there has been a comment, or that their comment has received a reply. For collaborative writing, such notifications are useful for keeping up momentum. Or the online version of Word through Office 365 would work similarly.

The other tradeoff is that comments on Google Docs cannot be duplicated to another version of the file. Additionally, comments do not appear in the version history of the document. These are both serious limitations when you or the writer want to review previous versions, changes, and the associated comments.

Ink

When working with documents using a tablet or touchscreen computer, it can be nice to mark them up as you would a print document. Especially with a pencil or stylus, it is easy to add handwritten notes, to underline text and draw circles and other free-form commentary.

Screenshot of a PDF file with digital ink applied in the iPad app PDF Expert.
Screenshot of a PDF file with digital ink applied in the iPad app PDF Expert.

PDF documents are especially useful if this is what you want to do because there are so many different PDF apps available. On the iPad in particular there are at least a dozen apps that work well with an Apple Pencil and have many features. You can read more about the choices in either of these two recent review roundups from iMore and the Sweet Setup. Other good options exist for touchscreen Windows computers or the Surface in particular.

Writers will likely differ on whether they find the PDF file a good way to receive comments. Some may not appreciate that the file is not editable like a Word file, meaning that they will not be able to make changes directly on the document where your comments were placed. Others, however, may like this very constraint because it means that they can have two distinct versions of the document to keep things straight. Another good reason to negotiate in advance with a writer before working through several rounds of feedback.

Word files can also be written on in this way, either using a mouse or touch pad on a conventional computer, or a pen or finger on a touchscreen device. However, these ink comments are not as easily dealt with by writers–they cannot “resolve” them or delete them as easily as conventional comments. At the same time, some writers may still prefer them if they find this kind of handwriting more personal. Or you may insist on it if you find handwriting more efficient or effective.

This video demonstrates the somewhat tedious nature of selecting digital ink in a Word file in order to clear it from a draft.

Google Docs does have a way to include a drawing in a document, but does not have a feature for free-form drawing on or over existing text.

Edit Directly

Instead of making a comment, you can simply edit the text directly in a word processing document (but not a PDF). In Word, you can do this with the “track changes” feature. In Google Docs, you can do this by entering “suggesting” mode (instead of “editing” mode). This can be an effective way for making a suggestion about a wording change or to edit a typo directly. It’s also interesting to consider the differences between a feature that “tracks changes” made by whoever and for whatever purpose, versus a feature that allows reviewers to make “suggestions” that the author may accept or reject. Reviewers and authors can use both these features in equivalent ways, but their names may lead one to use them differently.

Screenshot of Word's *track changes* toolbar options.
Screenshot of Word’s track changes toolbar options.
Screenshot of Google Docs' *suggesting* mode toolbar option.
Screenshot of Google Docs’ suggesting mode toolbar option.

In both Word or Google Docs, writers can later either “accept” or “reject” each change you have made. However, one additional nice feature of Google Docs is that each suggestion can become a comment thread. This means you can make a suggestion, then reply to the automatically created comment with a brief explanation for why you are making that change.

Screenshot of making a comment in response to a suggested change in Google Docs.
Screenshot of making a comment in response to a suggested change in Google Docs.

Audio and Video Feedback

A different method of giving feedback to a writer would be to record a screencast video or just an audio file of your response. These recordings can feel more personable to the writer and can make it easier for you to explain feedback that touches on multiple parts of the paper at once (because the writer can watch you scroll around through the paper and point to specific sections). For the writer, these videos can feel more like a one-on-one meeting, although for you as the reviewer the recording process may feel artificial and awkward until you gain some practice with it. When you’re providing feedback to a writer you don’t know well or haven’t met before, making a video like this can help create a connection and help the writer appreciate your feedback more.

It’s important, also, to be mindful of any accessibility challenges writers might have in reviewing these videos and adjust your practices accordingly (although, of course, in some cases a video or audio recording may be more accessible to a writer than written feedback).

The first step for giving feedback as a screencast would be to develop a structure for your response before you start recording. Typically, you won’t want to edit the video so you’ll want to avoid big pauses as you think about what to say next. This doesn’t mean that you should write a full script out–it’s fine if you misspeak or say “uh” or something like that. The impromptu nature of these videos is what adds to their intimacy.

Jodi Whitehurst, writing for the Conference on College Composition and Communication, offers a useful sample structure for feedback and shares a sample video for providing feedback to a student writer. She also suggests software to use for making the screencast.

If you’re not an instructor, you might work with a more simple structure, based on the “describe, evaluate, suggest” model discussed earlier in this guide. You could spend a few minutes making loose notes about what you see the paper trying to do, identify a few aspects of the paper that are working well and some that need improvement, then identify two or three suggestions for the writer. These brief notes should be enough to help you speak to the writer without sounding scripted.

Before you begin recording your feedback, you’ll also want to make sure you have any additional documents or materials on the screen that you might want to reference. You could “minimize” these so they are available to pull up quickly when you need them. You’ll also want to make sure that you know which parts of the paper you’ll want to scroll to and point out to the writer–you don’t want to spend parts of the video slowly creeping through the paper looking for a particular sentence. You might highlight these in advance using a text highlight tool in the app you’re using. Lastly, be sure that any private information on your screen is hidden or obscured, because the writer will be able to see whatever you can see on your screen.

Software for Audio and Video Recording

Because there’s no real need to edit these videos, it’s fine to use very basic screen recording tools. If you’re on a Mac, the Quicktime program already installed will work fine. Just choose “new screen recording” from the “file” menu. If you’re on Windows, or you prefer not to use Quicktime on the Mac, there are a few options to explore.

Through Kent State, you have access to a video tool called “Kaltura.” With this tool you can record your screen and yourself at the same time (through your computer’s webcam) and viewers can easily arrange those as they prefer (showing your face in the lower corner or viewing your face and the screen recording side by side, or hiding your face or the screen recording altogether). Additionally, with Kaltura you don’t need to save the file and upload it to another service or try to email it to the writer–it appears in your Kent Kaltura account.

Screenshot of the button to start a Kaltura Capture screen recording session.
Screenshot of the button to start a Kaltura Capture screen recording session.

To use this tool, go to video.kent.edu and log in, using the button at the top right of the page. Once you’re logged in, choose “add new” from the top right of the page, then choose “Kaltura Capture.” The first time you do this, you will be prompted to install the Capture software to your computer. Afterwards, this button will automatically launch the software and you can record your screen with it. When you begin recording, you can choose whether to record a video of your face along with a screen recording. Be sure to name the video with a useful name (maybe the name of the writer or the document). When you’re finished recording, the video will automatically be uploaded to your Kent video account.

To share the with the writer:

  1. Navigate to video.kent.edu and log in.
  2. Click your name at the top right of the page and then choose “My Media.”
  3. Choose the video by clicking on its name.
  4. Click the “actions” button in the lower right corner, then choose “publish.” From here, you can choose “unlisted” or “published” depending on how you want to set the permissions in the video (unlisted is the simplest way).
  5. Choose the “share” button (to the left of the “actions” button), and either copy the link to share with the writer or send an email directly with the link.
This video demonstrates how to publish and share a video made with Kaltura Capture, offered free through Kent State.

If you are recording a number of videos for many writers, you can wait until all the videos are completed, then select all of them at once using the checkboxes to the left of each video on the “my media” screen. Then choose the “actions” button at the middle right of the screen, and choose to “publish” them all at once. Then you just need to share each one with the writer as described just above.

Aside from Kaltura, you can use another program to record the screen and produce a video file. You can then either try to email the file directly to the writer, but if it is over 10 MB this may not work well (if you email from Gmail, you may have better luck with larger attachments). Another option is to upload it to Google Drive and share that way. Google Drive presents a simple video interface to viewers through the Google website, so they won’t need to download the file and deal with whether their software will play the file you made. You can then delete the file after a few months to save space in your account. Lastly, you might upload the file to YouTube and keep it “private” so that only the writer is able to view it.

If you want to use other software for recording, there are several options to explore. Screencast-o-matic is suggested by Whitehurst in the CCC article mentioned above as a useful free solution (as long as you’re not planning to edit the video or go longer than 15 minutes). This tool allows you to record the screen and record from your webcam (like Kaltura) and it can produce a file, or you can upload to its free hosting service (like Kaltura). If you are at Kent, Kaltura is probably a better route for online hosting since the University can support you if you have any trouble.

Another free solution for Windows is ShareX, which can record your screen and upload to Google Drive or Dropbox easily. However, the limitation with this software is that it only records your screen–not your webcam.

Lastly, OBS is a free tool for Mac, Windows, and Linux. It is fairly complex, however, because it has many options for a variety of recording tasks. It seems particularly pitched toward people looking to stream video game play. However, if you plan to make this kind of video review a common practice, this tool seems worth learning because of the many ways you can customize it to exactly what you want.

Other Feedback Practices

In addition to the conventional commenting and suggesting practices described above, there are other tools for providing and receiving feedback that offer alternatives to the standard feedback review cycle process. For the most part, these practices are more useful if you are in a class teaching situation, rather than if you are just providing feedback to a writer one-on-one.

With Eli Review, mentioned earlier, instructors can assign guided review questions to students, who then review each other’s work. These questions can take the form of simple checkboxes (e.g., “check the box if this paper has an explicit thesis,” “check the box if this paper cites 5 or more sources”), likert scales (e.g., students select one option out of several, such as: “this paper integrates quotations well”, “quotes in this paper stand on their own”, “this paper rarely quotes”), and rating scales (e.g., students give a 1-5 star rating to a series of statements you provide, such as “the thesis statement makes a non-obvious and debatable claim”). You can also direct students to make free form comments about certain aspects of the paper and provide direction for them to make a final comment.

Screenshot of what reviewers see when using Eli Review.
Screenshot of what reviewers see when using Eli Review.

What is particularly innovative about this system is that after students provide feedback, the authors of the papers then are able to rate each comment or other piece of feedback they received. If their reviewer gave them a critical comment about their thesis, but then didn’t explain why they viewed it that way, the author can then give a 1 star rating to that piece of feedback. If a reviewer writes a thoughtful final comment that really helps the author, the author can give that comment a 5 star rating and include the comment on their “revision plan,” which the software allows students to create by selecting useful comments.

Additionally, as the instructor, you are able to see a dashboard the displays all the feedback in various ways. You can see the results from the whole class for a single question, or you can look at each particular student’s comments to authors, or all the comments one author received. You can then also provide feedback to the writer yourself. Using the ratings, you can see which feedback students are finding most and least useful, and display these comments anonymously on the screen to give examples to the class.

The Eli Review website has many in-depth tutorials for using the software as well as a number of pages dedicated to explaining the pedagogical reasoning behind the tools and how to integrate them into your teaching goals.

Another option might be to use a web form to collect feedback on a document. This could be a Google form, where you ask reviewers specific questions and then receive the answers collated together in a spreadsheet. As an individual, this process could work well. As long as you’re not looking for in-depth comments directly added to the document itself, you can use this method to ask particular questions about the paper, and then see a spreadsheet report that would let you compare data in interesting ways.

Screenshot of a Google Form to capture reader reviews.
Screenshot of a Google Form to capture reader reviews.

For example, you might sort the spreadsheet so that you can see that the people who disliked the example in the introduction also typically disliked the conclusion example, but that the people that liked the introduction example also liked the conclusion example. This would allow you to make a better judgement about whether to change those together or leave them as they are based on your assessment of those readers.

Screenshot of Google Spreadsheet of responses sorted by rating for one question.
Screenshot of Google Spreadsheet of responses sorted by rating for one question.

In a class situation, this option is less useful because there isn’t a way for the authors of the papers to receive the answers from the form about their paper. There are some plugins for Google Forms that will send emails like this, but they cost money (such as the Google Forms Notifications plugin which costs $30 annually).

However, if you are at Kent you can use the online survey tool Qualtrics to produce a form that will email the results to the author as well as record them in a web dashboard for you to see. Qualtrics is a bit complicated because of the many options, so a tutorial on its use is beyond the scope of this guide. However, the library has a guide that explains this process and you can also review Qualtrics’ support page on this feature. However, remember that you want the email to go to the author of the paper, not to the “respondent,” that is, the reviewer filling out the form.

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