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Giving Feedback: A Hierarchy of Concerns

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Ivan Eubanks

on 23 December 2016

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Transcript of Giving Feedback: A Hierarchy of Concerns

Giving Feedback:
A Hierarchy of Concerns

Ivan Eubanks, Ph. D.
Purpose & Genre
Argument
Global Structure
Paragraph Structure
Sentence-level Concerns

For many writers, reaching and influencing an audience is the ultimate objective of creating a text. Getting and responding to feedback is therefore a crucial part of the writing process, because it allows a writer the benefit of another perspective on how to overcome obstacles and it may also indicate how an audience will respond.

Precisely when feedback will be helpful, however, often differs from one author to the next. Some writers may prefer to seek other perspectives late in the composition process, when the text has begun to assume its final form. Others may seek feedback on their ideas in the very early stages of the process.

Giving good feedback thus involves determining what aspects of the text and the writing process to address. This presentation will therefore propose a hierarchy of concerns, which should serve as a checklist for what aspects of writing one might comment on in a student's or colleague's work.
When giving feedback, it will be impossible to comment on every single aspect of a text.

At the same time, when dealing with a student or colleague writing in his or her second language, an abundance of grammatical errors may tempt you to resort to error correction before addressing other issues.
But error correction may not be the best place to start, no matter how badly it is needed.
Why?
Because if a writer needs to work on meeting genre expectations, structure, argument, or other fundamental aspects of the text that involve massive reorganizing or rewriting, he or she may omit portions of the existing draft and make new mistakes in passages that require new material.
It may therefore be helpful, when giving feedback, to consider addressing the most fundamental concerns first, then addressing smaller details. This hierarchy of concerns may be described as follows:
Writing doesn't happen in a vacuum, nor does it happen without some motivation, stimulation, or purpose.
A good, strong sense of purpose can govern the other aspects of a text and provide the writer with an intuitive sense of how to resolve problems and overcome challenges in the writing process. A weak sense of purpose can lead a writer to lose confidence or get lost in a labyrinth of stylistic, structural and rhetorical decisions.
For example, a student writer with a weak purpose may say that he is composing an essay in order to get a good grade. Such a student's decisions will be driven by the simple desire to produce something his teacher likes.

A better purpose for such a student might be to use the essay as an opportunity to explore, develop and share his ideas on the given subject.
Experienced writers may find that a clear purpose will help determine which genre to use, which venues to seek for publication, the tone and style of language to use, etc.
For example, a literary historian wishing to share her views on a controversial new novel with a wide audience may choose to write a book review as opposed to a research article.
The literary historian's purpose, then, determined the discourse community (i.e., audience) she chose to address and thus the genre best suited to her goals. Genre, in turn, impacts most other aspects of the text, including structure, content, style, and even what is considered grammatically correct or incorrect. (A novel, for example, may include colloquialisms and grammatical aberrations that suit a given character's speech, whereas academic articles would typically avoid such constructions.)
When giving feedback, you might first ask yourself: Has the writer mastered her genre? Is she aware of all the conventions and expectations for that genre within the discourse community she hopes to address? Or does it seem that she may be unfamiliar with her chosen genre? Is the genre appropriate to the ideas expressed?

Students in particular may be unfamiliar with the genre in which they are asked to write, as many of them will not have had previous experience with it. For example, in U.S. secondary schools students are often asked to write what is called a "Five-Paragraph Essay," which is a very specific genre with a narrow set of purposes (e.g., to practice highly structured writing, to exercise tactics for the timed writing portions of college entrance exams).

College and university professors, however, sometimes complain that students turn in five-paragraph essays when they were assigned term papers and thus need to unlearn what they were taught in school.

But the students do not necessarily need to unlearn what they were taught, they just need to pick the right genre for task at hand.
Even professionals sometimes choose the wrong genre and could benefit from feedback concerning that decision.

For example, I sometimes catch myself drafting conference papers as if they were to be printed in highly specialized journals rather than to be read aloud to colleagues. Readjusting the text for its genre (an oral presentation) may involve eliminating portions in order to conform to an allotted time frame, adding anecdotes or other attention-grabbers to keep the audience engaged, or even changing the priorities of how I present and organize my...:
"Argument," generally speaking, may refer to what a text says and how the text attempts to persuade readers to accept what it says.
Types of arguments and means of persuasion differ from one genre to the next.
For example, the argument in a newspaper article reporting a conflagration would simply be a statement that the fire happened, what its causes were, and what its consequences are.

To persuade readers, such an article may include information about when and where the disaster happened, quotes from firefighters, quotes from victims, or a photograph of the blaze.
Argumentation in academic writing can be very complex, involving any number of claims and subclaims, various types of evidence, analysis, rhetorical moves, and logical reasoning.
Despite such complexity, however, the argument in academic writing should:
be motivated by a compelling research question or philosophical inquiry
address a practical or conceptual problem within the context of the subject area being addressed
consist of a primary claim about the given problem
All of the sub-claims, evidence, analysis, rhetoric and logical reasoning in an academic argument should serve to support the primary claim
When commenting on argument in academic writing, it may be helpful to consider the following:
Is the primary claim easily identifiable?
Is it substantial enough to merit an entire article?
Does the essay maintain focus on supporting the primary claim?
Is there sufficient evidence to support the claim?
In order to support the claim, is it first necessary to persuade a reader to accept sub-claims?
Is the logical reasoning clear and well-explained?
What is the author's strategy for supporting the primary claim, and is it effective?
What other strategies or tactics may work to support the claim?
If the author has constructed a clear and worthy argument with sufficient evidence, then it follows that the argument should be organized according to a...
Global structure should usually be determined by:
1. The genre and its accepted form withing a given discourse community
2. The needs of the argument

In the humanities, authors are typically afforded a lot of freedom to customize global structure, as long as the argument is clearly stated early and the thread of argumentation is not lost within the body of the article.
Articles in the natural and social sciences usually follow a stricter global structure, which may differ according to the field in question or even the journal within a field.
In the social sciences, for example, a research article may conform to a variation of the
IMRaD
structure, which includes the following standard sections:
Introduction
Methodology
Results
and Discussion
One may also encounter a "Literature Review" section, which usually comes near the beginning, before "Methodology," and Appendices (charts, tables, graphs, data, etc.), which come at the end.
In addition to considering the expectations for structure within a discourse community, it is helpful to consider paragraph sequence (either throughout the article as a whole or within each section of the article). In communities that allow more structural variation, the sequence of sections may also be worth considering when giving feedback.
When commenting on global structure, it may be useful to consider the following:
Is the article divided into sections?
If so, does it follow a conventional sequence?
If not, would the sequence be more effective if it were altered?
Does the sequence of paragraphs (either within a section or within the whole article) effectively support the argument? If not, how might it be altered?
Does the sequence of sections and/or paragraphs follow a clear, logical pattern? If not, should they be resequenced, or do they just need better transitional phrases and sentences?
If you were to rewrite each paragraph as a single sentence, would your consequent list of sentences make sense when read in order? Would they follow a clear progression of ideas?
If the global structure needs no serious alteration, then it may be time to consider...
Mastering paragraph structure can be difficult, because it requires good intuition to determine whether a paragraph is too long, too short, or badly organized. Nevertheless, there are some typical features of paragraphs in English:
Topic Sentence(s):
The main point or idea of a paragraph should be easily identifiable.
It should (usually) be embodied in a single sentence (or two, if necessary).
Important ideas that are not subordinate to the topic sentence may be better off recast as the main points of new paragraphs.
In addition to a topic sentence, a paragraph may contain any number of subordinate sentences that clarify, expand upon, or develop the main idea or support the main point.
Finally, each individual paragraph should be linked to its neighbors within a logical sequence. Thus each paragraph in the body of an essay should have a transition in (from the previous paragraph) and a transition out (to the next one). Transitions may occupy an entire sentence, or they may be accomplished by a phrase or even a single word.
Just as altering global structure and paragraph sequence can cause one to rewrite paragraphs and reconstruct transitions, restructuring paragraphs will likely cause the rewriting of sentences. If paragraph structure is no longer of primary concern, however, it may be useful to turn to...
Sentence-level concerns include everything from diction and style to grammar and usage to punctuation and mechanics. Although sentence-level concerns are not the least important part of writing, they usually include the types of errors that will be reintroduced if the author revises larger pieces of the essay, such as argument or structure. This may prove especially true with second-language writers, who may make sentence-level errors habitually rather than accidentally. Furthermore, no matter how well-written an essay is on the sentence level, the main reasons journals reject articles are flaws in argument or a structure that obscures the argument.
To summarize, the general rule for providing feedback on writing is to reinforce the movement from general (larger, more fundamental aspects of a text) to specific (the small details). Doing so will help the writer fix the most important parts of the text without duplicating her efforts in the process of doing so. This method of providing feedback has worked in the visual and plastic arts for centuries and can be effective in writing as well.
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