Soul-crushing academic feedback: The Collector’s Edition

This is a post about soul-destroying feedback.

Classics of the genre have been floating round my friends for years; the oh-so-appalling comment which had you marvelling at the skill of the cruelty even as tears of pain rushed down your cheeks. A few months ago I canvassed opinion on facebook, intending to post the Greatest Hits here on Clamorous Voice, but then I got approximately four thousand jobs and had to write nine hundred chapters and moved house and went to Grimsby. The first draft of this post was written in a B&B (although which I’m now not sure).

The following are all real comments made by teachers, tutors and supervisors on essays, problem sheets and practical work. I should say that neither of my lovely supervisors (or anyone at my undergrad college) have ever said anything even remotely resembling the horrors after the jump or, well, I wouldn’t be posting this, I’d be gnawing my own hand somewhere, still.

Contributing universities (and drama schools) came from the Europe, the US and Australia! Original contributors are welcome to out themselves in the comments.

Friends and fellow survivors, thank you so much for sharing. Now raise your right hand and promise not to hand this on to your future students….

        The Worst/Most Mythically Terrible/Nearest-To-Heart-Stopping Feedback You Ever Got On Your Essay, Chapter, Acting or Life From An Education Professional (click below for the horror. Slow scrolling is advised).


      “We should talk.”


      “Not this.”


      “Never this.”




      “Your writing is journalistic.”


      “You write like an American.”


      “I notice you type all your essays, ensure your handwriting remains legible so the examiner can see how truly ignorant you are.”


      “Too well-heeled.”




      “leave it out – we don’t want to be trite.”


      “Moreover, you need to cut the word ‘moreover’ from your vocabulary.”


      “If you wanted to do creative writing you should’ve studied English.”


      “I like the first sentence, it made sense.”


      “This depressed me.”


      “There is only one problem with this translation. It’s all shit.”


      “It’s as if you are attempting to get from A to X and starting at N.”


      “X, I’m fed up with your crappy fake acting. it’s rubbish, it’s an insult, and I never want to see it again.”


      “You are not writing for The Guardian.”


      “You are not writing for The Guardian… yet.”


      On a Masters dissertation, two days before deadline: “Bullshit”.


      “Makes no sense.”


      “Not like this.”


      “You do not appear to have understood the reading material”.


      “My supervisor is a master of the tactically deployed question mark. It’s less “I don’t understand your argument” and more “why did you even think writing this was a good idea, let alone showing me”.”


      “Is English your first language?” It was.


      “This would be worthy of a Cambridge student.” [at Oxford]


      “Your writing reminds me of Spenser’s Muiopotmus in that it goes in concentric circles.”


      “I got little skull and crossbones doodles. It was like hangman… the worse the essay, the more limbs skelly acquired.”








      “Why do you do your research?” [the particular horror of this one comes from reading it aloud six times; placing the emphasis on a different word in each reading; considering the implications of each emphasis, and then wondering which appalling set of insinuations your supervisor intended. Why DO you do your research?]


      “Your argument is lost in a thicket of the baroque.”


      “Just because you think this is true does not mean it is.”






      “bla bla bla”


      “What are you doing?”


      “This essay has almost no content and your writing style obscures rather than elucidates what little you have.”


      “Your entire essay is barking up the wrong tree, and then complaining when there’s no cat in it.”


      “This paper is exceedingly well-researched and well-written, marshalling an impressive number of both primary and secondary sources, but in your dissertation you’re going to have to make a real argument.”


      “Oh GOD.”


      “It wasn’t an essay as much as it was an idea, which petered out.”


      “X writes good essays, but when he has to talk about them, it seems like a fluke.”


      “X, are you GOOD at English?”


      “Sometimes you have an idea. You seem as taken by surprise by it when writing as I have when reading.”


    “For a pretty girl, you are awfully obsessed with ugly things. You must have real darkness inside you.”

29 thoughts on “Soul-crushing academic feedback: The Collector’s Edition

  1. I learned my lesson about doing feminist research in a conservative department when I received feedback on my masters dissertation, including:
    “It is never acknowledged that in fact the ‘[topic of my dissertation, a major feminist ethical theory]’, is not an ethical theory at all…it doesn’t solve moral problems.”
    “it is not clear how ‘[feminist ethical theory]’ would help solve moral dilemmas, as opposed to making them even harder to solve”
    “This kind of thing is impossible, and not acceptable”
    “It is considerably less impressive than many undergraduate dissertations that I have read.”
    “this won’t do”
    “It is simply not true”
    “It is nothing other than bizarre”
    “Why should we believe this?”


      1. Yes, after having articles from that dissertation published, I realized that the feedback was based in bias rather than objective academic evaluation, so I came to Oxford and received a distinction on my next dissertation!


  2. “Your bibliography is impressive, Ms Jones. Perhaps next time you might consider reading these books, rather than simply removing them from the library.”


    1. Rhian, people who barely know me have approached me in the street to admire this comment. With respectful, survivor-group AWE.


  3. “You have some good ideas, however you indulge in mental freewheeling to the point of derailing your argument,”
    First ever essay as an undergrad.


    1. I remember my first essay as an undergrad. I was so proud. It came back kindly but decisively covered in red ink.


  4. In an undergraduate essay, my writing about All The Things provoked the following description: “an unfortunately scattergun effect”. Being the little shit I was, I promptly used this as the subtitle of my then blog.


  5. When studying on a junior year abroad “You’re an undergrad; there’s no way you can know this much” proceeding to claim I plagiarized (which I did not and defended successfully)


  6. “You should never have been allowed to propose [your Ph.D. comprehensive exams]. Your advisor has failed you and this department has a responsibility to stop you from continuing.” – From a professor at a student-faculty department meeting. He had the audacity to make me come to his office afterward and then proceeded to tell me I should drop my advisor and take him on. My proposal was passed unanimously at the next faculty meeting. (P.S., he did the same damn thing at my dissertation proposal!)


    1. (great to see you here) I think that reveals two things: your skill as a writer, and the tragedy that we can’t be funny and academic at the same time. Surely entertaining theses are more likely to be memorable and of use…


  7. When I was doing my undergraduate thesis which is testing a Western theory in my country then finally proposing a context-based theory in the end, my supervisor told me, “How dare you create your own theory? You cannot do this!” I cried for 2 days. But I got the highest grade in among her supervisees and graduated with awards. Maybe sometimes they say things like this to push you.


    1. This sounds to me like a joke – a compliment that is written as though it is not one. Works in person and with someone who comes from the same culture and speaks English as their first language so is able to pick up all the nuances, but not in writing and not out of culture.


  8. I had two shockers just prior to submitting my phd thesis. One said of the question posed in the abstract “This is not really a question for a thesis” The other was in regard to the writing style that “felt out of genre, though enjoyed, it was somewhere between a Janette Turner-Hospital novel and a conversation with Yoda ☺”


    1. I have to say that the second one is a triumph of horrific-meets-skill. How did the comments affect your thesis submission? And how was the viva?


  9. The day before my Higher English exam (aged 16), my English teacher told me: “There’s something missing with the structure of your essays, if you know what I mean.”

    I didn’t.

    This was soon after I’d asked her if she’d help teach us how to plan essays, and she’d said we should read the book “she gave us”. That book never materialized.

    Hopefully my writing has improved, otherwise my PhD is in trouble!


  10. I just got this from my supervisor: “I started with details, as always, then glazed over” I opened the doc and lo and behold! The first two pages had corrections and the other 20 were pristine!


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