How to give feedback on writing that says nothing

For me, giving feedback to a student who has something to say, no matter how bad the mechanics are, is much easier than giving feedback to a student who has nothing whatsoever to say but spells it correctly.

My strategy is to dodge the issue of providing feedback on the writing until I can determine why the student writes empty essays — which is my semi-polite term for writing that sounds like it was written by a moron having a really bad day.

In most cases, establishing a relationship with the student provides all the information I need to provide feedback on the student’s writing tactfully and supportively.

Empty essay example

Here’s a sample of the kind of shallow writing I mean:

There are a lot of places where I can go to be alone and relax. I personally like to go to my room. I like to listen to music to relax. I also like to go on my computer to be alone and relax. These are some places and some things I like to be to be alone and relax.

I mostly like to do to my room. I mostly like to do to my room because; in my room I can be alone and think quietly. I also like my room because it’s a place where I can always go to think about things. I also like going to my room because it’s one of the only places I feel most comfortable in. This is why I mostly like going to my room.

Another thing that I do is, listening to music. I like listening to music because certain music makes me feel good, and makes me feel like I’m relaxing in a way. I also like listening to music because of their lyrics. The lyrics relate to my everyday life, which in a way makes me remember some good memories.

Although this essay has some writing mechanics errors, they are relatively minor. The real problem is that author began writing before he/she had anything definite to say.

A glimpse of empty essay authors

Giving feedback to the authors of empty essays requires a gentle touch. Often the students who produce empty essays are timid and unsure of their abilities. They take refuge in safe ideas that they think cannot draw negative attention to themselves.

Empty essay writers may be students whose reading is so limited they don’t recognize a platitude when they pen it. They may actually think they invented a phrase they’ve heard but never seen in print.

Other times they are bright, savvy kids who have figured out how to milk the system, putting down words they know the teacher won’t bother to read past the second sentence.

And sometimes the students who write empty essays really are just plain dumb.

From a writing sample, you won’t be able to tell to which category the writer belongs. And it is possible that a student might fit into more than one category.

What empty essay writers need

A student who writes empty essays needs writing prompts that allow him to write about what he/she knows, preferably without saying to the student, “You’re a loser who knows nothing.”

The best way to provide students with writing prompts that allow them to use information they have is to have them write about class topics or on writing prompts that are related to topics discussed in class.

Once you start looking for ELA-related writing prompts, you will often find students have experience outside of class with issues centering on language, writing, reading, and media. Such topics allow students to merge their classroom learning and their outside experience, giving security to the timid and ideas to students with limited reading experience.

Besides authentic writing prompts, empty essay writers need strategies for planning and developing content. They often do not know how to go about getting started writing something that’s meaningful.

In my experience, most students who write empty essays are delighted to be given templates and strategies that allow them to do real writing providing those templates and strategies are not a great deal more work than they are used to.

Giving feedback to an empty essayist

You need to be careful giving feedback before you have a chance to sound out the empty essay writer. A thoughtless comment could hurt a student emotionally and quench any willingness he or she might have had to stay in school.

Giving feedback in ways that won’t damage a genuinely timid student’s ego is a challenge, but it’s a small challenge compared to responding to a student who has been getting A’s based on her (it’s almost always a female) legible handwriting and good spelling and has no clue she is churning out garbage.

As you are giving feedback on the early papers you are using to establish baseline performance, I suggest you keep your written content comments to a minimum. Write just enough to show that you are attentively reading the material.

You can, however, ask questions that indicate indirectly the type of content you’d like to see.

For example, instead of noting that the student wrote the same idea in three different sentences, the second time it appears you might write in the margin, “Could you give me a specific example?”

Have a conference with the student

A private conference is usually the best way to get a sense of why students are writing drivel. My initial conference with any student is not so much to discuss the student’s writing, as to find out how to support that student’s attempts to write better.

When the student writes empty essays, at the initial conference I try to get a sense of why a student writes drivel and whether the student realizes the essays are awful.

You can often get useful information by asking open ended questions such as:

Would you share with me how you go about writing an essay like this?
What do you think is the most important thing for a writer to be able to do well?

It could be that your student has the impression that grammar is the most important part of writing and content is just the platter it’s served on.

Or perhaps your student is doing what worked in Ms. Inky Finger’s class but would rather do something more interesting.

Disagree if you must, but don’t criticize.

Confer, don’t confront. Even if you think you’ve psyched the kid out just by watching her in class for two weeks, let her tell you about her writing experience.

And listen — really listen — when she tells you.

Rather than criticize the student’s work or the methods of other teachers, I prefer to say things such as, “I know that works for many people, but I’ve never had good luck with it,” or “Most of my students find there’s another way that’s less trouble and seems to work just as well.”

Share your plan to help the student succeed

I usually end a conference by giving students some information about what I plan to do to support them in their writing. Usually I phrase that information in terms of psychological factors.

The kids trying to milk the system are usually risk takers. I tell them I’m going to give them some work that will challenge them.

If the student is timid, I stress that I’m going to give structure and strategies for writing so that they can be confident that they haven’t overlooked something important.

The dumb kid and the kid who doesn’t read get that same message. Timid kids, non-readers, and dumb kids find just getting to school is challenge enough. They each need assurance somebody is going to help them out once they arrive.

Having a personal conference with a student is a good way to connect with students so you see them as individuals, not just as essays to be graded. Then, when you are giving feedback, you are more likely to phrase negative comments in ways that are respectful and supportive rather than disrespectful and discouraging.

This content was first posted at on 2008-02-06 and updated 2011-12-28 by Linda Aragoni.