– Feedback season

Wite OutWhen it’s midterms for students, it’s midterms for teachers. (There’s something rather binge-and-purge about school, isn’t there?) In the past two weeks, since Columbus Day, I’ve been reading, commenting on, and grading the drafts of technical reports and scientific analysis papers, about 35 altogether. They’re long (average: 20 pages), but after the first few in a batch, I get into a rhythm. And while I don’t copy and paste comments from one report into another, I do notice similar issues and may make similar comments among reports.

I don’t claim any of the following lines as poetry. Here are some of the kinds of things I write or type in the margins.

This title is not informative enough.

Nice subheaders. Specific and informative. Reader gets some sense of paper from the ToC, which is good.

This seems to be your focus. I’ve highlighted the key elements: reader will expect to see these carried through paper. Style note: Sentence is clunky and hard to follow. It’s okay to develop it into two sentences.

While this is a straightforward and precise summary of your results, don’t do it here, for this tech report assignment. Save for Results. Instead, you might want to give a brief overview of the rest of the paper.

Do you carry this point through the paragraph? It seems like the rest of the paragraph returns to the focus on minimizing costs and optimizing results and is not concerned with the specific parameter.

Somewhere in your paper, maybe even here, it would be helpful to have a very brief overview of the Betts et al. experiment.

Nice work. This is clear and concise, and the description contains information that would help a knowledgeable reader duplicate your experiment.

This seems to be a placeholder for more precise language.

This is appropriate language for referring to a figure. However, you must also give a brief textual summary of what the reader will find in the figure, and the Results section should begin with a to-the-point statement about what was found. No suspense!

So, if reader accepts that static gassing-out is a more accurate measure, which is what I think you’re arguing for here, then reader may expect you’ll take this up again in your paper somewhere, because in essence you are disposing of sulfite oxidation as relevant in minireactors.

Always use penultimate comma in scientific and technical writing.

Can you be more precise than “more quickly”? Are there data? It seems as though you’re starting to analyze findings here, before you’ve presented them. Is this the right place for this in your report?

Text that introduces Fig. 8 goes here.

This has the ring of something that would be compelling for a reader to know earlier.

Ah, a provocative assertion/conclusion here. Reader wants to know more of your thinking. How can you take this further, say more?

The interesting thing about writing good comments is that they are made to disappear. As I write these on drafts, I hope each author’s thinking and writing are prompted by my remarks, instructions, and questions. These marks of mine disappear in the revision; they become merely ghosts, ones maybe that only I see, flitting around a student’s new words and newer version.

One thought on “– Feedback season

  1. “in essence you are disposing of sulfite oxidation as relevant in minireactors” — Wow! Can you believe you wrote that? I love stuff like this that’s so specific.

    Here are my favorites, though:

    “This seems to be a placeholder for more precise language.” (I know exactly what you’re saying, but it is said in a poetic way.)

    “Always use penultimate comma in scientific and technical writing.” (I like the idea of a penultimate comma, though I haven’t heard the term before. Is it the same as an Oxford comma? If so, I like this comment even more, because I am a fan of the Oxford comma.)

    Your tone is gentle but direct — just what an commenter should be aiming for! To combat the ephemeral nature of such comments, I used to obsessively photocopy everything, until I realized this would cause me to suffocate under a giant pile of papers.

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