The Graded Essay: 5 Steps to Improve Your Next Essay

In this post I will guide you in the process of interpreting the feedback on your essay and how to prioritize and incorporate it into your next, much improved, essay. This topic is a natural extension of the posts I’ve written on how to write your argumentative essays (see my “Mastering the Human Event” tutorial).


You’ve gotten your graded essay back. Your Instructor wrote a lot of comments on it. Your first instinct, because several years of schooling have trained you to practice grade-grubbing, is to look for the letter grade or numerical score, to find out what you “got” on your paper. My first piece of advice is to develop the discipline to disregard the grade, or at least not to imbue it with so much value. The real value of your graded essay is the criticism you’ve received on your writing by an Instructor who knows how to write well and is eager to share her knowledge with you. If you value this feedback for the gold that it is, you can incorporate the criticisms into your next writing assignment and the grade will take care of itself. I’m going to give you 5 steps to help you take the information your Instructor gives you and apply it to all of your future writing.

1.  Find where your Instructor has written a summary narrative comment and read that carefully.

This is often at the end of your paper, or sometimes a separate page is attached to your original paper or file. Here the Instructor will often summarize the most important shortcomings in your essay (as well as praise you for what you did well). In my experience, the top 4 shortcomings in an argumentative essay are:

  1. the thesis statement is not a well-formulated argument;
  2. the evidence adduced in the body of the essay is not expounded or effectively analyzed;
  3. the conceptualization of the argument, the conceptual framework of the essay, is inadequate or uninteresting;
  4. the prose is unsatisfactory to the point where your diction and linguistic errors interfere with your meaning.

NB: Nos. 2 and 3 may be the result of an inadequate reading and grasp of the primary text(s) that you are writing about. No. 4, if it is bad enough, may cause your Instructor to give up before completing your essay; I’ve given up after one page in the worst cases. If you had a chance to rewrite this essay, how would you address these shortcomings? Whatever your Instructor has identified as an important shortcoming in the summary narrative comment on your essay, you need to review the instructional materials for performing that task correctly.

2. Read the key marginal and in-line comments written by the Instructor.

Go back to tgraded-essayhe beginning of your essay and identify the key marginal and in-line comments. These are the comments that correspond to the most important shortcomings identified in Step 1. Your Instructor provides more details in these comments to help you understand what the specific problem(s) is (are).

Example 1. Suppose the Instructor has commented in his or her summary narrative at the end of your paper that your thesis is weak or even nonexistent. So now that you know you have a major shortcoming with your thesis statement, you should jump to your thesis statement on the first page of your essay to read any additional discussion of the problems in the Instructor’s marginal comments. You reread your thesis statement and sure enough, it’s a hamburger thesis – simply a list of claims, disconnected from each other and with no logical inference to a definite proposition. If there was a problem with the thesis statement in my students’ essays, these would receive my longest marginal or inline comments. The details you get from the Instructor in these comments are important because they will tell you not only that you do not have a well-formulated argument, but why specifically it isn’t. Often the Instructor will give you editorial suggestions about how to improve or fix the issue. You can thank them for that later (Step 4).

Example 2. The Instructor has commented in the summary narrative that your paper lacks sufficient evidence. Go to each paragraph in the body of the essay and check each of your quotes to see what your Instructor has said about them. It could be that the quotations aren’t relevant to your argument. Or that your discussion of the quotes lacks adequate analysis or explanation. (Analysis is an element of textual evidence.)

Now compare what the Instructor has written in the marginal comments with the instructional materials that pertain to that issue, just like you did in Step 1. Incorporate any specific editorial suggestions the Instructor included in his or her comments. Now it is time to practice applying those instructional materials so that you can break bad writing habits and replace them with good habits. Review your previous short writing assignments, earlier drafts, and papers. See if you can find problems on those that are similar to the shortcomings your Instructor identified in your current essay.

3. Revise the parts of your essay that have the most serious flaws in reasoning.

You’re not in this for the grade, remember? There’s no way around this step if you are serious about improving your writing skills. To write well you must write more and write smarter. Your Instructor is guiding you in the latter; the former is up to you!

Steps 3 – 5 are the key for you to advance from understanding what you did wrong or poorly on the essay to being able to avoid repeating those errors on future essays. Focus especially on any shortcomings in your thesis, conceptualization, analysis of evidence, and map or structure of the essay. Don’t rewrite the whole essay. Take no more than two hours to revise sections of your graded essay by focusing on the parts that have the most serious problems. Print out a copy of these revisions, which should be no more than a page or two, and…

4. Request a meeting with your Instructor to discuss your paper.

See my guidelines about communicating with your Instructor. Even if this is the last essay you write for the course, the real-time feedback from your Instructor that is available to you is extraordinarily valuable for all of your future writing. Here are five key points about this step:

  1. In your email contact with the Instructor, make it clear that you have specific items from the last essay you’d like to get further feedback on. You don’t have to list them in the email; the point is to let the Instructor know in advance that you have a specific reason and agenda for meeting with him or her, and you’re not coming to grade-grub, argue about his or her comments or evaluation of your work, or otherwise pitch a fit. You’re going because you believe that a brief autopsy on your recently deceased essay will improve your writing.
  2. Go to the meeting prepared. Make sure you’ve done the first three steps I’ve outlined in this post.
  3. Bring your revised material from Step 3 as well as a printed copy of the graded essay. Explain that this is your attempt to understand and incorporate the Instructor’s feedback and ask him or her to evaluate how well you’ve understood the main problem(s) with your essay. Ask for further guidance if your revised work still hasn’t significantly improved your problem areas in the essay. Only if you show your initiative in trying to improve your writing by bringing in brief, revised material for your Instructor to review is it then appropriate to ask for further editorial suggestions if they were not provided by the Instructor in the graded essay.
  4. Keep the meeting concise and on point. Your Instructor should do most of the talking. It’s an autopsy and she is the medical examiner. You’re there to assist, listen, and learn. Certainly ask for further clarification if you don’t understand something your Instructor says. But don’t get bogged down in too much detail like word choice or get defensive about either your original essay or the revised material. Your graded essay is a corpse and you’re looking for the cause of death. You’re there to show you’re serious about improving your thinking and writing, to show that you’ve grasped what the problems in your essay were, and reflected on how you would correct or improve them were the graded essay a first draft.
  5. Take written notes of any new suggestions or information your Instructor gives you. This is more grist for your mill.

5. On your next essay, build in a reasonable period of time to develop your first draft and analyze the areas of the draft that were shortcomings in your previous essay.

You’ve put some real work into incorporating your Instructor’s feedback, and the last thing you want to do is repeat the same mistakes.

Apply these 5 steps and you’re sure to improve your next essay. And make your Instructor much happier as he contemplates the task of grading your work and that of your classmates again.


The Top 10 Foods at Trader Joe’s

When you think of Trader Joe’s, what comes to mind? They’re the anti-Mega-lo-mart. Perky check-out staff. The cloak of name brand secrecy. Handy paper bags if you forget your resusable ones. Two buck Chuck.

If you live in a location without a Trader Joe’s, you’ve probably heard stories of people traveling over 100 miles to go to the nearest one, or done so yourself. They have a unique business formula for the ultra-competitive grocery market that wins them enthusiastic customers.

We here at the PhD have been known to frequent TJ’s. And so we’d like to share our List of Top 10 Foods at Trader Joe’s.

10     Pork Shu Mai

porkshumaiBecause we believe that homemade tops frozen prepared almost every time, we’ll start with this delicious snack. Or, when you find you can’t stop eating them, this delicious meal. If you are in a real hurry, you can follow the microwave instructions, but this method causes the water to be released and makes the dumpling gummy as it sits in its hot bath. (Still, dunk it in your favorite soy or peanut sauce, and who will care?) We like ’em baked or pan fried for the added crunch.

9     Tamales


Another frozen package of deliciousness, the tamale, like the pasty, may be the most perfect package of food ever invented. Sooo good. Don’t eat the corn husk wrapper, though!

8     Masala Simmer Sauce



Connoisseurs of authentic (as opposed to British) Indian food may scoff, but this jar of sauce is an amazing flavor bomb for the North Indian curry of your choice. Chicken tikka? Yes, please!

7     Stone Ground Wheat Crackers


I hear you. “Um, a cracker…really?” Don’t judge. If you’ve never been frustrated by the search for the best delivery vehicle for your charcuterie board, dips, tapenade, and so on, then you can’t appreciate the golden mean that TJ’s has achieved with this cracker. No, it’s not perfect. But it’s got all the things you want in a cracker without being excessive in any category: flavor, texture, crunch, appearance. Plus, you’ll need lots of ’em for 6, 5, and 1 below…

6     Manchego


While all the cheeses at TJ’s are solid, the manchego is something special. Seriously, this is angel chorus stuff. A sheep’s milk cheese aged perfectly, hard yet buttery smooth, and the perfect accompaniment to your party spread.

5     Green Olive Tapenade


Wait, did I say angel chorus stuff? Put this tapenade on that list. Get your stone ground wheat crackers, plain bagel chips, or homemade toast points. Lots of ’em. You can’t stop eating this. You know you should, but you can’t. It’s that good.

4     Organic Free Range Chicken Broth


Didn’t see this one coming, did you? Yes, a broth. We like to cook here at the PhD, and a good broth can be hard to find (or make). This one has a nice balance of flavor, medium-low saltiness, and fat. This is our go-to broth for soups, stews, and sauces.

3     Homestyle Salsa Especial


I’m a late arrival to the salsa explosion in this country. Born too early, I guess. And probably in the wrong state. But word is that salsa is now the number one condiment in the U.S. If my job was eating salsa, TJ’s Homestyle Salsa Especial would be at the front of the salsa parade in no time. The package says “Medium,” but this stuff is HOT. Good hot, not hot hot. Enough to make the eyes water. But you don’t mind because it tastes so good. You know you need a glass of milk to turn down the heat smoldering in your mouth, but you don’t care. This salsa is a bit watery, but that’s tradeoff for fresh veg. It has a wonderful balance of vegetable, herb, and spice ingredients. Can you say “fresh cilantro?” Yes. I knew you could.

2     Pretzel Bagels


We now reach that part of the list where difficult decisions must be made. It was hard to not put these pretzel bagels at numero uno. We eat a lot of bagels in the mornings here at the PhD. I grew up eating the most perfect bagels I’ve ever encountered anywhere, anytime, at Clearwater Bagels. The store was always hot when they had the boil kettles going. Now, I’m very spoiled by those authentic homemade bagels, and as a result, have strong bagel opinions. The one thing I cannot stand in my bagels is a soft outer “covering.” Those things are just bread in the shape of a torus. And that’s usually what you get in grocery store “bagels.” No, a good bagel has to have a hard coating. How can you tell whether your bagel passes this test? Use a bagel guillotine. If the blade simply smashes the “bagel” into a useless doughball, it’s not a bagel; it’s bread. If, on the other hand, the bagel pushes back a little against the blade as you press down, and when cut holds its shape, you’ve got yourself a real one. TJ’s Pretzel Bagels have a delicious flavor, and the pretzely coating give them the right texture. Are they boiled, authentic-like? I don’t know. And I don’t want to know. Just keep ’em coming, yes?

1     Wild Nova Smoked Smoked Sockeye Salmon


The top slot goes to this holiday favorite. We put together a dizzying array of tapas for our Christmas Eve meal, and this smoked salmon has been the centerpiece for some years now. Cream cheese, capers, a little green onion if you like, and up you go into a heavenly flavor vortex.


I hope you enjoyed this little diversion from the usual fare served up around here (pun intended). There were some honorable mentions, like the hummus dip and the Cubano seasoned wrap. But we’d like to know your entries in the Trader Joe’s Top 10 List. Did we miss your favorite? Drop us a comment and we’ll keep the list going!