The Skidmore College
Expository Writing Network

Terms for Commenting

Comments are most effective when they lead students back to re-read their paper and when they help students see how they can revise their work or improve their next paper. Students often do not have a sophisticated vocabulary for talking about writing. They see their work as "good" or "bad." Besides teaching them how to improve their writing, then, your comments teach them a new critical vocabulary.

The terms listed below are ones that students find confusing when they read them in comments on their papers. We're not suggesting that you avoid these terms, only that you make sure that students understand what you mean.


UNCLEAR (or VAGUE): Sometimes we find this term in the margins, next to the middle of a paragraph. Students need to know what makes the paragraph unclear: ideas, word choice, or sentence structure. Students may interpret this comment to mean that their ideas are "bad," when you mean that word choice is imprecise.

AWKWARD: Students who write awkward prose frequently have a recurring pattern of sentence structure. For example, they might place a long clause between a subject and a verb; or they may repeatedly use abstract nouns or noun phrases as subjects; or they may begin a sentence with "this," referring to large, amorphous ideas rather than to a specific noun. Pointing out the pattern will help dissuade students that their writing is "bad."

?: You don't understand something, but what caused your puzzlement? Is it the lack of concrete details? The use of imprecise terms? The sentence structure? Illogical placement of sentences within a paragraph? The specific assertion that that student is making? How, in short, can the student answer your question?

WORDY: Students may be able to identify wordiness but not know how to avoid it. In most wordy writing, there is pattern: the recurring use of phrases such as "the fact that," or "the reason why"; the repetition of the same idea throughout a paragraph; the affectation of flowery language orjargon. Students need to recognize the pattern if they are to become selfeditors.

DISORGANIZED: If a paper has few transitions, illogical organization, and poor paragraph development, we often use the catch-all term "disorganized." Students who write disorganized papers benefit from learning revising strategies. For example, you might suggest that the student construct an outline after the paper is written. Such an outline asks students to identify topic sentences and ask themselves if those topic sentences occur in logical order.

DICTION: Do you mean imprecise (or improper) word choice? Modifier problems? Jargon? Non-idiomatic writing? Trite, slangy, or colloquial expressions? Incomplete comparisons or correlative conjunctions? Diction, for many students, is hard to translate.

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