The number one critique I receive from professors on essays or response papers most commonly involves words such as unfocused or unclear. I know I’m not alone in this. Regardless of how you process, finding focus is the most tedious part of the writing process, and consequently, it comes along with the greatest margin for nonfocus. Though it is easy to put such comments down because, well, you already know that focus and clarity are the goals, your professor likely had a good reason—beyond that of reminding you of your own standards—for indicating that something may have been off. But what? What do you do when you’re positive you have found focus, but your feedback indicates that perhaps your focus wasn’t clear enough? You ask yourself, does my professor mean I didn’t find focus as I originally thought I did, or does this mean the way in which I expressed my focused idea wasn’t clear enough? What do professors mean by such words anyways? Are clear and focused synonymous?
If you continue to pose questions like those above, you will likely give yourself a headache. However, you can avoid dizzying yourself in this attempt to literally translate the words unclear and unfocused. While the most logical solution is to have a conversation with your professor, if this isn’t an option—or if, after meeting with your professor, you still can’t seem to figure out what he or she meant by unclear or unfocused—you do have one last resource: yourself.
I have found that the most helpful first step in interpreting feedback is to re-familiarize myself with my paper. In doing so, I put my professor’s feedback aside. As Stanley Fish writes in his essay, “Is There a Text in this Class,” words only have meaning if they are “embedded in a context,” and without this context—in this case, that of your paper—words have “an infinite plurality of meanings.” In short, if you try to extract meaning from your professor’s words without first refreshing yourself on the content of your paper, you may land on a variety of definitions of unclear and unfocused that your professor could have technically intended. So the key in figuring out what, exactly, your professor may have meant by these words is to re-walk yourself through your paper, keeping focus and clarity at the back of your head as you read. Did the distinct ideas in every paragraph clearly support a focused thesis? Was the context of your argument clear? Were the purposes of each quote or each paragraph clear? Did the words in each sentence logically fit together in a way that was clear?
As easy as it may be to dismiss the words unclear and unfocused as ambiguous, I fully believe that the exercise I proposed above is valuable—and in some ways, even more valuable than interpreting more explicit feedback that excludes these words. Though we all know (again) that clarity and focus are the goals, this practice of interpreting focus and clarity in terms of your own argument will force you to catalog several definitions of focus and clarity that you can then consult as you write in the future. Because it’s your writing process, the only way to improve is to understand your writing on your own terms.
You may now be asking, then what’s the point of feedback? On the most basic level, the words that professors use in feedback are signs that something was or was not smooth in the progression of your argument. Generally, all professors can do as they provide you with feedback is speak to their own reading experiences with your work. If your professor is lost in a sentence, he or she may very well indicate so by using the words unclear or unfocused without necessarily understanding why. Ultimately, he or she will never be able to correct your own clear and focused argument because, well, it’s your argument. So here’s my final suggestion: don’t dwell on feedback, but don’t ignore it either. Perceive your professor’s comments as signals for you to return to your own writing. If your professor sensed that something was off, but he or she wasn’t explicit, sit down with your paper again. Figure out what you were saying and think about how you said it. You understand your process best, and so you are your best reader.