Step Away from the Red Pen - Part 3: Feedback for the Writer Within

One of my heroes, Katherine Bomer, has reminded us over and over that writing is one of the most vulnerable acts for students in school. They must lay their thoughts and “imperfections” out there on paper to be exposed to their peers, their teachers, and sometimes the entire school community. This is terribly scary for many students. It is a wonder so many are still willing to even try. The right type feedback can make a world of difference to all writers in continuing (or even starting) to write.

We teachers, even before the groundbreaking work of Donald Graves, have been reminded to teach writers, not writing. Yet, when giving feedback to writers we most often focus on the writing itself. We study it for its strengths and challenges and consider next steps for growth in that particular piece of writing. This is undeniably helpful. However, it is missing at least half of the sort of feedback that can truly create invested, skillful, and joyful writers. Instead of solely offering feedback based on student writing, we can offer feedback on the work of writers.

This work is often challenging, so challenging many would like to avoid it altogether. What’s more, it is invisible to anyone looking at a final piece of writing. Yet, this work is crucial and incredibly impactful to the writer and the writing. Sylvia Duckworth’s image illustrates the work of a writer that most do not see:


Modified from original image, The Iceberg Illusion by @sylviaduckworth.


Perhaps you’ll share with your students this robust reminder of what writers either need or do to create that final piece of writing. Our feedback on these experiences can recognize, celebrate, and give pointers on how to work through the challenges that arise. Here is a tool that you may want to use as you give feedback to your writers about living as a writer.

Underwater experience How to explain it Feedback wording you might use to support it
Hard work Putting in effort to make writing the best it can be. This often includes pushing yourself to do more than what is comfortable, spending more time to smooth out the writing, revising again and again, especially when you don’t feel like it.

Remember that hard work is not easy work. That is why it is called hard. Expect hard. Perhaps if it all feels too easy, you can push yourself to work harder.

Remember that hard work always, always pays off for you in the long run.

Good habits These are the “healthy” choices we make as writers like writing every day, making the most of our time, reading like a writer, etc.

Pick one habit you know will benefit you the most. Vow to do that every day.

Write every day. Talk to another writer every day about writing.

Disappointment In writing, sometimes things don’t work out as planned. Disappointment may come from a small mistake or a big failure. Both are treasures for a learner and writer!

Sit with disappointment. Don’t try and pretend it is not a feeling.

Disappointment sometimes feels terrible but is like eating a really healthy, not very tasty vegetable. It helps us grow. Name the changes you plan on making because of this disappointment.

Persistence This is a mental commitment to stay the course and stick with writing even when things get tough.

Make a commitment to yourself, or a friend, that you are going to do something. Follow up with yourself or your friend to celebrate what you have done.

Ignore the voices (in your head and out) that encourage you to give up.,Talk back to them and say, “I’m not listening!”



We all know that writing is challenging so let’s not keep those challenges a secret. Instead, let’s make them public, give feedback on how to work through it all, and celebrate the hard parts because those hard parts create beautiful writing. And beautiful writers.

Patty McGee