“You need a comma here. Also, what does this sentence mean?”

I know unclear comments are just a part of getting feedback, but I still do a double-take when I see them. What were you, my reader, thinking? Did you mean my sentence is unclear, and adding a comma will make it clear? Or did you mean you don’t know what I’m talking about, and the comma is incidental? But if that’s the case, why mention the comma?

For most of us who share our writing for feedback, unclear comments are part of the deal. They may come from well-intentioned friends or siblings, from teachers giving feedback on the eleventh essay of fifteen, or from peers critiquing our work in class. Regardless of the specific reader, the way to find meaning in such comments is always the same: instead of getting frustrated, pay closer attention.

When I take a step back from my own confusion and look at my work, I usually find the reader was picking up on something important. Even if they didn’t articulate the details perfectly, the intent of their response is what matters most for me as a writer. After all, I just articulated something in a way that didn’t work for them, and they had the decency to tell me. Working out the “why” is my job.

Readers, unless they are exceptional, rarely stop to synthesize their responses. Instead, they give their authentic, often unfiltered response—interpreting that feedback is up to the writer. So, instead of being confused by contradictory or unclear feedback, now I just look at my writing a little closer. Something in that spot caught the reader’s attention in a way other than I intended. What is it? Why did it come across the way it did? How do I fix it? Do I need a comma, or do I need to rewrite the sentence, or both, or something else?

Most of the time, just paying attention is all I need to sort out the problem, and that’s why I rely on reader feedback even when it isn’t completely clear. Readers know whether something works, even if they can’t say why.

As a writer, I take reader feedback with a grain of salt—but also with a grain of truth.


John Dunham
WEX Development Support,
Virtual Writing Center Coordinator