What to do when your prized essay comes back bleeding red

September 30, 2021 — by Victoria Hu
The misery of getting your essay back

We’ve all been there before. 

You wrote an essay. You’ve revised, reworded and polished it until it sparkles like your mom’s kitchen countertops. 

Then it’s time for the teacher to hand back your graded work. 

You tell yourself to keep your expectations low. But secretly, you’re proud of your work, so your hopes skyrocket. You lean forward, anticipating a good grade — a nice high number circled on the rubric. To your horror, blood-red ink marks deform the pristine white paper and the rubric score is scandalously low. The reality of your situation slowly settles in.

How is this possible? 

As someone with an unbreakable glass ego and tough, tissue-paper-thick skin, I am evidently the most qualified person to answer this question and teach how to accept writing critiques. As you sit and wonder what your parents will think, take a moment to cope with your pain through the classic five stages of grief.

Denial: Writing is an art — it’s subjective. And not including an MLA heading — it was your artistic choice. After all, you defied the societal expectations of your English class by choosing a new way of structuring your paper. When you wrote your formal, expository paper in first person “I,” you were creating an emotional connection to the reader to strengthen your argument and personalize their reading experience. When you decided not to capitalize those “i”s, it was symbolic of how small you feel compared to the vast expanses of the universe.

Clearly, your teacher has different tastes in writing than you do, but I am amazed by your revolutionary new techniques. In fact, I recommend auctioning your magnum opus to an abstract art museum or selling it to eager parents who will show your paper to their children and tell them all about why their writing isn’t good enough.

Anger: You’ve spent all your time and energy at 3 a.m. clicking away at the keyboard for this essay. You’ve basically spent money on this assignment by working on it with a tutor. You’ve wasted time, energy AND money that you could’ve spent on boba. You’ve even ruined your eyesight staring at the screen.

Your teacher is legitimately crazy to expect anything more from you. What do they want, your firstborn child? Or worse, going to tutorial to ask for help? 

I believe that a healthy, productive way to channel this anger is to rant to your friends. It’s because of your teacher’s unrealistic rubric that your self-confidence is suffering, and being your closest companions in life, they deserve to know all about it.

Bargaining: You’ve poured so much of your soul into your essay, it’s practically a horcrux. Sadly, it’s a horcrux with a bad rating, but there’s one person who can help you fix that grade — your teacher. You just need them to admit that your writing is phenomenal — or decent at the very least.

The solution I recommend is to join the dark side. Since you’re already on track to becoming Voldemort, it’s only a baby step further to sell your soul to your English teacher in order to salvage your pride and GPA.

Sadness: Mope. Shed a few tears. Personally, I find questioning my life decisions with a mug of tea always helps.

Acceptance: Congratulations on making it this far! Ultimately, the final stage is internalizing the fact that your writing may sometimes be genuinely trashier than California’s air quality. But everything will be all right — there’s always room for improvement. No one is perfect, and everyone is a developing writer. Bottle those tears you shed and use them to water the seeds of optimism and your recuperating self-esteem. Work on revising your returned essay. Next time, ask for more peer edits and teacher feedback ahead of time. 

If your grade feels like a sinking ship in rough weather, don’t worry. By following my sound advice, like the Titanic, you can probably keep it afloat.