Your child has an essay splattered with red scribbles. What do they mean? Many comments from a teacher, like “writing is illegible” or “sentence is a run-on,” are straightforward. Feedback on your child’s ideas, however, may be less clear. It’s beneficial, then, to learn to interpret a teacher’s notes to help your child identify what areas need improvement. Here’s a sampling of frequent feedback, particularly for an expository paper, personal narrative, persuasive essay, or short story:

  • Show, don’t tell: If your child is writing an expository essay, he must use examples to prove his thesis. For instance, in a paper on Young Fu, a novel about a Chinese boy who comes of age in the 1920s, your child must discuss specific moments to illustrate Young Fu’s mental growth. Saying, “Young Fu felt left out” tells us he faced hostility, but describing how Young Fu was teased because he was a countryboy, and detailing one of his dangerous encounters in bustling Chungking, shows this isolation.

Tips: In an expository essay, explain every important idea with details. Never assume the reader knows about the topic or the book.

  • Too vague or lacks descriptive details: “Show, don’t tell” translates to fiction and personal narrative, too. If your child is recounting a vacation to Hawaii, she must describe this setting, from the height of the waves on the North Shore, to the colors of fish near Molokini Crater. “Grounding the reader in the physicality of your past experience is important to get them to care about what happened,” says Lauren Hamlin, an instructor in the University of Montana’s Creative Writing Program. “Vivid details give a story its texture and make it more believable.”

Tips: In a short story, a personal narrative, or reflective piece on a childhood event, evoke smells, tastes, and sounds. Transport the reader to an entire world of your creation, or from your memory. You are the expert.

  • Information-heavy: It’s possible to drown an expository or persuasive essay in too much detail. If your child is writing a paper on King Tut – but sidetracked by details about pyramid grave robbers for half a page – his work loses focus. Many middle schoolers think more is better, which leads to rambling information. Moreover, when developing an argument, your child may toss in as many facts and figures as possible, including bizarre and jaw-dropping – yet irrelevant – statistics. “It feels like you’re showing your knowledge, but oftentimes the reader gets lost or bored,” says Hamlin.

Tips: In a research paper or argumentative essay, spread out numbers or statistics. Cite the most significant ones, and then describe, in your own words, why they support your argument.

  • Avoid retelling the plot: Penning an expository paper on literature requires more than regurgitating the plot. If your child must prove how Koly, the protagonist in Homeless Bird, changes as she copes in her hostile, male-dominated society in India, he can’t simply discuss the story’s events in chronological order. He must focus on character traits and concrete examples to illustrate Koly’s change. He could easily write an essay recounting every plot point, but if it doesn’t address the prompt, it’s wasted effort.

Tips: In the editing stage, read each sentence and ask: Does this prove my thesis? Expository writing also requires a balance of exposition (description from the text) and analysis (dissection of this text).

  • Too narrative-driven: Personal narrative demands storytelling as well as contemplation. If your child is writing about a grandparent’s death, his account will be stronger if he reflects on the event. “A personal essay tells a story, but it’s not a ‘this is what I did last summer’ essay,” says Hamlin. “Those tend to be summaries of events – ‘and then this happened and then this happened.’ Personal essays have a reflexive quality, which guides the reader toward a purpose.”

Tips: “Don’t just summarize what happened to you. Think about the significance of each step and consciously craft your essay,” says Hamlin. Consider two “voices” for such an assignment: the voice of your former self – curious and perhaps naïve – and the current one pondering the past, which may be more mature.

  • Fails to identify conflict or lacks purpose: Addressing the central problem in a book, or the protagonist’s primary desire or need, is the key to a successful paper. In a discussion of the dystopian world of Uglies, for example, where sixteen-year-olds are operated on to make them pretty, your child may not identify under-the-surface conflicts or themes of conformity and inner beauty. Likewise, when writing a personal essay, he may not grasp why he wants to recount a certain event, or “what it all means.” His purpose, then, may be unclear.

Tips: When analyzing a book, ask yourself: How did the main character change? What did he or she learn? What larger opposing forces -- aside from human characters -- hinder the protagonist from reaching a goal? When crafting a personal narrative, questions are similar: What does this event say about who I am?  How has it affected my life?

  • Transitions needed: Student writing doesn’t always “flow.” Your child’s sentences may end abruptly, the rhythm of the piece may be “choppy,” or language and content are repetitive. Sentences may begin the same -- “This means that,” “This is important because,” “That means” -- or repeatedly start with the name of a main character: “Harry fought Voldemort,” “Harry saved Hermione,” “Harry went here,” or “Harry flew there.”   

Tips: Read work aloud. Pay attention to where periods are placed, and pause at each one to figure out if an idea can be better connected to the next. Use transitions such as “next” and “however,” or phrases like “in the second example” or “on the other hand.” But don’t go overboard: The key is to sound natural. Creating varied sentence beginnings may be an advanced task, but it’s never too early to practice.

  • Character is flat: Developing authentic characters takes time, even for celebrated novelists. For middle schoolers, this involves giving a character a name, describing the person with physical traits – “tall with blond hair” – or crafting dialogue that may not be “true to character.” If your child takes a stab at fiction, he should think about favorite characters with whom he identifies. For instance, why was Liz, the protagonist in the supernatural world of Elsewhere, three-dimensional? What fears and challenges do your child and Liz share?

Tips: Every character, even a “good guy,” has flaws. “Show personality contradictions and quirks,” says Hamlin. “Vivid physical description will also help round the character out and make the person more believable.”

  • No counter argument: When tackling a persuasive piece, your child may explain her stance thoroughly, but may not anticipate the remarks of her opposition. If she’s writing a paper for a high school civics course on abolishing the dress code on campus, but doesn’t consider what parents or administrators will say, her argument is weak.

Tips: Envision yourself on a stage during a debate. How does the person – or group – behind the opposite podium refute your argument? What will you respond?

It may take practice learning to decode a teacher's comments, but the more you review your child's work, the more you'll be able to assist her with revisions and future assignments.