The Art of Good Commentary

Every semester, I give my Writing-Consultant apprentices the student essay "What If Drugs Were Legal?" from Richard Straub's essay, "The Concept of Control in Teacher Response." It is a poor draft, to be sure, were a Richmond student to submit it. When I give it out, I do not provide much advice except "write a set of comments" and then wait for disaster.

Every semester, disaster strikes but I do not grade these first attempts by the apprentices to apply rules that may have worked for them but that may not apply to other writers or situations.

This page lays out the guidelines for flexible commentary that should work in our Writing Consultants program. Unlike other universities' programs, we do write--a lot, at times--on student drafts. Compare how the example at the end, written from the perspective of a peer, differs from the graded example I have attached as a PDF.

Principle One: Never critique the professor, the writer, or the assignment

  • When unsure about meaning in an assignment, refer the writer back to the professor. If preparing a Writing Center report, note to the professor in the report such language as "John had questions about your assignment I could not answer, so I recommended that he contact you."

  • Employ directed praise for the writer's efforts. We are trained, by example and perhaps inclination, to be critical of others' work. Of course we must not sugar-coat what needs doing, but why only provide negative feedback? I often begin my own commentary with something along the lines of "in reading this draft, I learned XYZ" or "Your use of sources not only was consistent but I liked the variation between direct quotations and paraphrases." By the way, never, ever provide "blanket praise" such as "good paper," "excellent," or "good thesis." Only the professor can make such judgements, and many writers interpret such remarks as "I now will get an A."

Principle Two: Limit your remarks by setting priorities for the writer

  • Read the draft quickly and without a pen or keyboard nearby. Then reread carefully.

  • Make notes on a separate sheet before composing the comments. Find out which errors are repeated, which are violations of the assignment, and which are ones that appear to be universal violations of some rule.

  • Limit marginal remarks. Type out or write, if your penmanship is fine, end remarks on a separate page. Always do that last bit. If you make a mistake, you can then fix it without adding cross-outs or changes that may lead the writer to think you are sloppy or incompetent.

  • Use questions well. In the margins in particular, short questions such as "why 'always' here?" or "what sort of change?" can focus a writer on areas clear to her, but not so clear to a reader.

  • In your end notes, begin with a short narrative that outlines what you found strong and what might be the three or four largest concerns for revision. Then add specific end-notes, numbered and linked to points in the draft's margins. Note that this very page follows that sort of format (but it gets too long!).

  • Confine the end notes to one page. This is VERY hard for new Consultants. I aim for no more than one page, single spaced and typed.

  • Set priorities. Grammar is always important, but making a fundamental error with logic, a failure to answer a clear question posed in the assignment, and other global errors merit going higher on the list. For sentence-level errors, repeated ones bear noting in writing. Others might wait until the conference with the writer.

  • Save a good deal for conference. You want to make the conference active by giving the writer tasks and questions that cannot be answered in a "yes/no" manner. Conferences provide great occasions for teaching rules that are not false, such as how to place semicolons, or how to limit passive voice when the Consultant knows it is excessive and not needed in the field of study.

Principle Three: Watch your tone

  • Do not pretend to know content, as that is a professor's task. Unless a professor specifically authorizes you to remark on content, do not. Thus, no "you demonstrate a strong knowledge of Taoism" but instead "I learned something about Taoism here."

  • Direct your praise, avoiding "Excellent," "good," "strong," and similar blanket judgements. Instead, focus on specifics that helped you, as reader. So instead of "good insights here," try "I like how you integrate the quotations with your own ideas. We'll use that as a model in conference to address some spots I found less clear."

  • Limit commands in the commentary, or link commands to a personal and precise reaction. When you do not understand, switch to first person. Thus, "this is unclear, fix it" should become the far superior "the term 'corrupt society' confuses me. Please unpack that term to show how society becomes corrupt." If the margin remark is going to run long, point the writer to an end-note, as in "the term 'corrupt society' confuses me. See note 2 at the end."

  • Use critical questions well. These can really show a writer what she did not see before, as in "what part of 'society' do you mean? Everyone?" These short questions work great in the margins or as short embedded comments with MS Word or Google Docs.

  • Before noting those "universal errors," remember Keith Hjortshoj's "false rules" (87-93). These include "do not use first person" and "do not use passive." These may violate the Writing Consultant's or a professor's sense of propriety. They may easily be overused by novice. They are not, however, universally wrong yet are often stated as universals, like lines on some tablet Moses carried down Mount Sinai. Their use--and many other rules besides--depend upon the field of study and even the shifting norms of grammatical use. "No split infinitives" is quickly becoming an archaic rule, as English changes. After all, modern languages usually evolve. Do we speak as Shakespeare's characters speak? When in doubt, consult Writer's Web or a printed handbook at the Writing Center. Do you own a grammar handbook?

  • Limit second person "you" in favor of a first-person reaction, unless you are writing the sort of step-by-step guide this very page constitutes. The tone of "you" sentences can be accusatory, pointing a virtual finger in remarks such as "you summarize too much here." Instead, try "I don't see how this summary makes your claim stronger. I need more evidence to persuade me." NB: I went through the end remarks below to "Nancy" to make sure I had no more than FIVE "you" or "yours." I failed, and redid the remarks accordingly.

  • Do not use a red pen, because the color screams at the writer. Use blue, green, or pencil (the last is easy to fix if you find you made a mistake). One of your predecessors tested this hypothesis with her high-school students. Those with margin comments in red DOVE for the final grade, but those with other colors tended to read the remarks first. Why add anxiety to the already anxious?

If you read this far...good for you! Here's an example set of comments I prepared, using these principles:

First, you'd prepare a few margin notes, but not too many. Short remarks from a reader's perspective such as this, beside an underlined passage: "See note 2. This section confused me." or "This interests me. See note 4 for why."

Then you would, TYPED and on separate paper, include something like this for "Nancy's" paper, "What if Drugs Were Legal?"

PS: DID YOU write your name and contact information on the draft you return? ALWAYS do that. And staple all of it together. The materials will be lost in the harum-scarum lives of your writers.

Example of Final Commentary


We’ll have met in conference about some of the issues I’m marking here, so I won’t put down some topics that we’ll discuss.

Overall, the paper shows a lot of passion about the topic, but as your reader I’m very concerned that the point most interesting to me, the reason for disagreeing with LeMoult, only appears in the final paragraph. I’d recommend bringing it forward so the reader knows why you disagree.

In conference, we will first discuss this and other “big picture” issues and then I’ll help with some word-choice and grammatical issues that weaken the potential of the essay. I will rely upon you to help me to understand LeMoult's ideas, so we can concentrate on adding better support to the counter-arguments. Choosing clear examples and reasons will need to be a priority when you revise, as the current essay did not completely convince me. As you revise, feel free to contact me at

Notes: (Consultants: These numbers refer to spots in the margins where I had a SHORT note such as "I'm confused by this summary. See note 2)

1) The professor’s assignment asks the writers to focus on why they disagree or agree with LeMoult. Readers expect reasons (and not just a yes/no statement) early on in the paper to work like a "roadmap" for the rest of the essay.

2) There’s an interesting sense of history about drug problems here. As I read, I was curious about how this refutes LeMoult. I was also unclear about where we place the blame now—society? Drugs? If society, all of it? If drugs, all of them? Maybe the large amount of summary provided me isn’t showing strongly enough why you disagree. I’m confused by how Chinese laudanum drinkers resemble users of illegal drugs today.

3) Like “society,” “we all” and “wrong” are pretty big generalizations. Some probably cannot be supported, others need to be qualified. I suspect that like me, the professor expects explanations for all arguments. It is a characteristic of all academic writing; I’m worried that unless you return to your main reason or reasons for disagreeing with LeMoult, the prof and other academic readers will dismiss these arguments as mere opinion (strongly held ones, which are fine as long as they are clearly supported with trustworthy evidence).

4) Here I saw a clear reason for why you disagree. Did LeMoult even consider this? Would this point, as your strongest argument, serve as that roadmap in the introduction? Coming here, this late, I finally saw the map—but it is awfully late in the essay.

5) I’m worried that again the essay bites off more than it can chew. Prohibition, from all accounts, was a terrible failure. The second point, however, would work better for me if narrowed and given more support. Legal things are easier to obtain.

6) If “good and true,” why disagree with LeMoult? Perhaps acknowledging his strong points more specifically will help. Help me to understand why your reason(s) seem stronger than his best points?