In writing a response to an early draft of a piece, your aim should be to offer its writer help in thinking about the shape and direction of their project. You will want, that is, not so much to offer advice about local matters of phrasing or editing, but feedback about more global issues of aim, tone, and structure. What is the writer trying to accomplish in this piece? What do they do well? What kind of work do they need to do most to make this a more interesting or compelling piece? What needs to be added? cut? reworked? rethought?
In responding to the work of the other members of your writing group, then, think of your role as that of a friendly yet attentive reader who is helping them develop their essays for a wider readership. In practical terms, your written comments on a piece should be in two parts. Start with a brief note to the writer in which you:
- State what you see as the aim of the piece.
- Note what works well so far. Point to moments in the draft that strike you as particularly interesting, provoking, well-argued, nicely illustrated, or the like.
- Suggest one or two ways in which the writer might develop, extend, refine, or rethink the essay. This is not usually a time to offer advice on editing, proofreading, or other matters of style and correctness. Try instead to point to work the writer can do to take the piece to the next level.
- Address the writer by name and sign yours.
Then, after having written this note, go back through the piece in order to locate two or three specific points where you think the writer might usefully do the kind of work in revision that you’ve suggested. Comment in a sentence or two on each of these points. (You can use the Insert Comments function in Word to do so.) Try to connect these local comments to your opening note.
These written comments will be the starting point for your response to the author’s work in your writing group. So you don’t have to put everything you want to say about the piece in writing, but you will want to emphasize what you feel is the most important and urgent advice you have to offer. Try to offer the author the kind of help you hope to get with your own writing!