Comments on Work in Progress: Smooth sailing with rough drafts

Daniel Emery

If your course design involves a large end-of-semester paper or project, now is the perfect time of year to examine students’ work in progress. Research on feedback in writing clearly demonstrates that students learn most when provided with the opportunity to revise based on formative feedback.  While some instructors might recoil at the idea of draft commentary as just more work, offering feedback before a final assessment can simplify the process of grading and ultimately save time. Here are some strategies to keep in mind when responding to students’ work in progress.

What does ‘draft’ mean for experienced and novice writers?


Faculty writers are familiar with revision, and most recognize that it is in the process of revision that our best writing emerges. In this case, a first draft is both a completed attempt at a piece of writing and a preliminary step in the process of publication.  We draft in order to get feedback and we revise for publication.

Conversely, students may be accustomed to equating revision with proofreading or correcting surface errors.  Their process of drafting may involve drafting to get their thinking on paper, and then revising only to correct errors.  Students often spend the majority of their time completing an initial draft, and will often assume that a revised version is merely a cleaned up version of the initial product.

When establishing practices for drafting and commenting, emphasize that the goal of sharing work in progress is to give students opportunities to share how they are meeting assignment expectations and to ask questions about their own writing. Revision implies listening to feedback and rethinking the choices in writing we have already made. In addition to requesting a completed draft, you might ask students to complete a cover page commenting on their own documents and writing processes:

  • What is the strongest element of your draft?
  • What seems to be going well? 
  • What are you finding to be a challenge? How are you responding to those challenges?  What help can I provide?
  • What new questions have emerged for you? Do any assignment goals or expectations need clarification?
  • What is your plan for continuing development? What time and resources do you need?

Remember the importance of locus of control: Ask students to make decisions.

Since the 1960’s, psychologists have used the term “locus of control” to describe an individual’s perception of how able they are to act and make meaningful changes in behavior. Those who see their options as limited by outside forces are said to have an external locus of control, while those who see themselves as able to operate and make choices are described as having an internal locus of control. Research consistently demonstrates that an internal locus of control is associated with enhanced motivation and behavior change, while those who lack self-efficacy are both less likely to make changes and less motivated to seek opportunities to improve.

When providing feedback on drafts, our strategy of commentary can stress the students’ ability to make changes and reinforce an internal locus of control. For example, asking open-ended questions will require students to consider choices that they make as writers.

Rather than commenting with a command (Delete this sentence) or a close-ended question (Is this sentence necessary?), you can promote students’ control over their own writing by asking, “What purpose does this sentence serve in the overall paragraph?” 

Similarly, rather than offering criticism (This section is disorganized) or explicit direction (Move this paragraph up, insert these sentence transitions, and end here), describe your reaction as a reader to preface a question: “As I’m reading, I get lost in this section.  What’s the most important thing you are trying to say here?”

Responding to a draft does not have to be pre-grading: keep it brief and descriptive.

Let students know that the goal of feedback is the improvement of students’ thinking and writing, not a pre-assessment of their eventual scores. Although students will clamor for affirmation and often ask (or plead or even demand) an estimate of their final score, limit commentary to the learning goals of the assignment, broadly considered.

  • Where is the document successful in meeting assignment expectations?
  • What steps are necessary to bring the project to completion?
  • What elements of the document can be added to or modified to meet expectations?

Limiting yourself to no more than three suggestions can help to establish students’ priorities for revision. Be cautious to avoid general praise or criticism that might be taken as a holistic assessment of the document. Even something as innocuous as “You seem to be on the right track” can influence students’ choices in revision strategy. If a writer seems to be in danger of failure on the assignment or seems to be missing a critical element, you might feel authorized to be more explicit and directive.

When students submit their final documents for evaluation, you might require a revision memo, in which students describe the ways in which they have responded to feedback.


Drago, A., Reinheimer D C, and Detweiler, T N. Effects of locus of control, academic self-efficacy, and tutoring on academic performance. Journal of College Student Retention.19 (4). 433-451. doi: 10.1177/1521025116645602

Sword, H. (2012) Stylish Academic Writing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Further Support

Visit Teaching with Writing on the Center for Writing website for additional resources.

The 2018 WEC Symposium will take place on April 20 in Coffman Union, preceded by a multi-institutional WEC Institute. These events are designed to provide faculty members and WAC/WID practitioners opportunities to consider the Writing-Enriched Curriculum model’s design, context-specific adaptations, and assessment data (Institute) and to witness the model’s impact on undergraduate instruction, curricula, and student writing (Symposium).