Writing for students: bouncing back from a bad grade

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So you got a crappy mark? Listen, it happens to the best of us (yes, even me). As someone famous probably once said, ‘there are no bad grades, just good lessons’.

Righting your wrongs and learning from your mistakes is as key to your development at Uni as joining a society and never going. In the long run, these balls-ups will make you better, stronger and whatever-else-er than before.

So rather than sitting there weeping into your Sainsbury’s Basic Beans, read this article and find out how to turn a bad situation into a not-so-bad one.

Getting detailed feedback

The key here is not just assuming you’ll be able to tell everything that was wrong with your work from the few comments your tutor scribbles on it before handing it back to you.

To really learn what went wrong, you need to, funnily enough, actually ask them. Whether that’s by firing off a (polite) email or rocking up to their office hours, make sure you actually have a conversation about what you could have done better.

Note these criticisms down, thank them in as sincere a tone as you can muster up and go home (or close your inbox) safe in the knowledge that that was a more productive hour or so than most of the 9 a.m. tutorials you’ll ever attend.

Re-reading the wrongs

Once you’ve got this list of toss, after perhaps a day or two of completely forgetting its existence, give it another read through.


“Did you write the essay whilst imbibing
a liquid your housemates swore to you
was ‘only as strong as beer’?”

Think about all the ways you could have avoided those mistakes (but not in a ‘woe is me’ kind of way). Was it that you spent too little time planning a particular section? Did you not read the set texts thoroughly enough? Did you write the essay whilst imbibing a liquid your housemates swore to you was ‘only as strong as beer’? (Yep, that happened).

Once you’ve got this list of explanations for your titting-up, write them down, write them on your wall, heck, even scrawl them on your forehead – just don’t forget them!

Planning improvements

So it’s time to write that next essay. You’ve got jitters. Your confidence has been knocked and you wonder if you’ll ever write a decent sentence again. Well, snap out of that, you big wuss.

When planning (or even just thinking about) this next essay, it’s essential you have those reasons you proper pooed up the last one, fresh in your mind and then avoid repeating those mistakes.

So let’s say it was because you’d got a bit squiffy on the devil’s sauce before writing – don’t do that.

Or if you didn’t read the text properly last time –read the darned text properly this time.

Or if you didn’t plan a specific section for long enough last time – I think you get the message.

It might seem a bit simplistic, but the fact of the matter is, avoiding the same mistakes is pretty bloomin’ simple… just don’t do it again!

Focussing in the edit

Now it’s easy to get carried away when writing and trail off into tangential nonsense (ahem), and those bad habits and mistakes can creep back in again.

That’s where our old buddy Mr. Edit comes in. Once you’ve got a first draft completed and gone over it with your usual fine-toothed comb, it’s time to crack out the specialist tooth comb. The one with the really sharp pointy-bits. The one that gets right up in the gums and makes them bleed.

What I mean by that is, you need to read through and adjust any bits and bobs with the words of your tutor ringing in your ears.

Make sure you haven’t fallen into those self-made traps that you got snagged in in the last essay, and if you have, find a way to crawl your way out of them before even considering handing it in.

Oh and remember this great (albeit saccharine) quote from Shannon Hale: “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

That goes for both editing, and learning from bad marks. That 3rd in the last essay might just be the piles of sand that your epic sandcastle of a next essay will stand on.

Thanks for reading and I hope you’ve learnt not to worry about writing absolute tripe once in a while; it’s what you make from that tripe that matters.

I’ve been Jackson Rawlings and next time I will be too.

Jackson Rawlings on HowToWriteBetter.net

Jackson Rawlings


Go say hi and link up with Jackson on Twitter – he’s (@jacksonhraw) … and on Google Plus, too…

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