Resisting the Urge to Be a Copyeditor

Resisting the Urge to Be a Copyeditor

The College of New Jersey

Mary Goldschmidt, Ph.D.


Faculty “need to be aware of the number of comments they are making on compositions. Students cannot process 100 comments in a paper. They get frustrated and either give up or concentrate on surface corrections, which do not encourage re-thinking or clarifying information”

--Gary Dohrer, “Do Teachers’ Comments on Students’ Papers Help?” College Teaching 39.2 (1991): 48-55. Academic Search Premier EbscoHost AN #: 87567555. (9 November 2006).

I frequently hear concerns from faculty about the added work in teaching a writing intensive course, and even those teaching WRI 102 have similar worries: how can I teach this course well and not get overwhelmed with responding to student papers? Grading more papers in a course where previously there might have been few, if any, is certainly a concern. Then add on to this drafts and revision, and suddenly even a course capped at 18 becomes a whole different experience.

Everyone agrees that developing our students as good writers, and therefore as good thinkers, in their discipline is important. The question is: realistically, how can we do it?

The remaining Bulletins this semester will focus on providing some answers. Building on the previous issue’s topic (providing feedback to promote revision), today’s issue will address how to effectively and efficiently respond to student writing. Operating on the assumption that we’re talking about commenting on drafts and not final, graded versions of papers (where learning from comments is nil), we have much well-established scholarship to look to for guidance. And this applies to all situations, regardless of whether it’s an officially designated writing intensive course.

In a study done at the University of Texas at Austin, Gary Dohrer examined what students view as the purpose behind faculty comments on drafts and the relationship between the comments and the students’ responses. First, he found that despite overt claims about wanting to promote revision, 52-80% of the comments on the drafts were on surface-level features. Not surprisingly, this corresponds to the types of changes most often made by students (59-90%): “students . . . had consciously decided that revision was predominantly an exercise in correcting errors to get a higher grade” (4). In doing their “revision,” most students did not re-read their paper, but only skimmed through the comments to correct the errors that were noted. They were not re-considering their text in a global way; they were not re-thinking the purpose or effectiveness of their writing. They were not, in other words, engaged in true revision. Rather, faculty “took on the role of evaluators, and students became correctors” (7).

Pointing to the work of Nancy Sommers from the 1980’s, Dohrer affirms that feedback that is primarily about error finding results in students relinquishing “ownership and authorship” since they attend to the faculty member’s concerns not their own purposes in writing (5). This, too, further eliminates the possibility for real revision.

In a forthcoming article reviewing the scholarship on responding to student writing, Rich Haswell comes to the same conclusion: students “assiduously follow the teacher’s surface emendations and disregard the deeper suggestions regarding content and argumentation” (11).

Extensively marking grammar mistakes—even with a concise system in which mistakes are numbered and refer to a master list—ultimately sends the wrong message and is counter-productive.

First, it sends the message that we’re all about searching for errors as opposed to listening to what students have to say and helping them communicate more effectively. Of course good usage DOES help writers communicate more effectively, so patterns of improper usage should be brought to students’ attention, but in a way that is manageable. The way we bring it to their attention should allow them to understand the pattern and then learn to correct it on their own.

Second, it can simply result in students tuning out. Studies have found that “students attend to nothing at all when paper corrections are overwhelming” (McAllister 61).

Third, it sends the concrete message that revision means correcting grammar mistakes. Thus, as MacAllister concludes: “Beyond fostering deafness and defensiveness in students, grammar-centered responses can also promote unproductive revision behaviors. Current research in this area indicates that one important distinction between poor and proficient writers is that poor writers restrict revision to changes in words and sentences, while proficient writers rewrite whole sections to clarify meaning for the reader” (60).

As Alfie Guy, director of Yale’s Writing Center and frequent Bard Institute writing workshop facilitator here at TCNJ, puts it:

“It is entirely appropriate to give comments on sentence-level issues, but proofreading or copyediting every error is worse than a waste of time—it is generally detrimental to learning. If a student needs help with diction, syntax, or correctness, you should select a pattern to focus on and mark only instances of that particular problem. . . . Students will not internalize more than 1 or 2 new rules during a given revision. Calling attention to more than this just generates noise.”

Keep in mind as well that when students truly revise and re-write whole passages, some of those errors you see in an early draft will be rectified. In fact, some of these errors are a product of simple lack of clarity on the part of the student. We have to remember that they’re struggling to formulate an idea and it’s not going to come out perfectly.

Resisting the urge to be a copy editor also promotes responsibility in our students. A website that I highly recommend for students as they learn to edit and proofread their papers is:

So, if we want our students to think about their ideas, the structure of their claim, its support, and their logic (among many other higher-order or macro-level revisions), we undercut our own efforts the minute we start underlining and circling every micro-level error. But it’s hard NOT to do this, isn’t it? Put the pen away (or the keyboard of you respond electronically), and first read for overall structure.

· What is the thesis?

· Has the student actually addressed the assignment?

· What main issue does this student primarily need to re-think?

Guy suggests keeping macro-level comments limited to 2 or 3 aspects at most, and to identify the categories or types of revision that you’re making note of so that students can “transfer what they learn to other writing projects.”

Guy also recommends not making any marginal comments until you’ve read the whole draft and decided what the main focus of your end comment is going to be; that way, you can make sure that your marginal comments are on the same issue and reinforce the suggestions you’re making for revision.

Here are some additional “minimal marking” techniques that you can try:

1. Provide end comments that both support how students currently think and yet challenge them to think in more complex ways; so, provide one paragraph that praises conceptual strengths and one paragraph that suggests ways to re-think the topic (Slattery 334).

2. A similar method is to comment on three strengths and three weaknesses, and then make recommendations for revision, keeping miscellaneous comments to the end (McAllister 62).

3. Rubrics or checklists—which have been given to students when they get the assignment—are also helpful ways of providing targeted feedback where expectations are clear, and thus comments are clear as well. If electronic, rubrics can include “text boxes” for written comments, so that students don’t feel that the process is too mechanized.

I’ll end with the following quotation: “To effect improvement in students’ writing, comments must confront students with issues situational to the text. . . . They must raise questions in students’ minds that cause them to reevaluate their own purpose, and not merely to guess at the teacher’s purposes. Russell Hunt (1989) contends that ‘we don’t learn language by having our errors pointed out and corrected; we learn as a by-product of using language in order to do things we care about doing’” (Dohrer 7).

Works Cited

Dohrer, Gary. “Do Teachers’ Comments in Students’ Papers Help?” College Teaching 39.2 (1991): 48-55. Academic Search Premier EbscoHost AN #: 87567555. (9 November 2006).

Haswell, Richard. “The Complexities of Responding to Student Writing; or, Looking for Shortcuts on the Road of Excess,” Writing Across the Disciplines, forthcoming.

MacAllister, Joyce. “Responding to Student Writing.” Teaching Writing in All Disciplines. Ed. C. Williams Griffin. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1982. 59-65.

Slattery, Patrick. “Encouraging Critical Thinking: A Strategy for Commenting on Critical Thinking” CCC 41.3 (Oct 1990): 332-35.