One of the skills that I have been forced to develop is a relatively thick skin when it comes to dealing with comments from others regarding my writing. It is probably due to sheer stubbornness that I have not stopped writing altogether, because my teachers picked, prodded, and poked my every word until I became a fanatic regarding spelling and grammatical errors. It is unrealistic to expect that fledgling writers will respond positively to voluminous criticism; in fact, the only reason I cleaned up my act, rather than stop writing altogether, is that I had to write in order to meet my life goals, and I became tired of feeling that pain in the pit of my stomach every time I saw red ink slashed across my written words. I can see why many students learn to dislike writing, and avoid it whenever possible, because I remember feeling that way myself!
It seems trite to say that before one writes a word of criticism on a student’s writing, one must say something positive. This practice, it seems, would soften the blow somewhat, or at least prepare the student to receive the teacher’s more critical comments. In the experience of many, the students’ words have been picked apart in so many ways, for so long, their requests for writing help shows their discouragement. They seem to say that they know they are hopelessly flawed writers who will never produce a decent paper without the professional proofreading skills of an outsider. They seem to acknowledge that they will never be able to do this on their own. Because they are resorting to asking for help, they seem to be surrendering to the inevitability of failure as a writer.
I think that tutoring is a wonderful service and I am proud to be part of that profession. I hope that my small role as a tutor is significant to the success of at least one writer. I want my words to impel the student writer to improve, rather than tempt him to give up. I wonder, however, what the balance is between offering genuine criticisms and mollycoddling. How many errors are allowed? What “rules” are breakable and which are not? What errors should one address in this draft? Should some errors be ignored? I as a tutor and a teacher am continually learning how to give feedback, just as surely as my students are learning how to write a thesis statement.
It seems as though the number of comments and criticisms I offer are directly proportionate to the quality of the writing. In general, the better the writer, the more numerous and explicit my criticisms are, both positive and negative. The more developmental the writer, the less advice I have to give for each revision. In a way this seems backwards. It seems as though the person who needs more help in writing should receive more help. However, I am convinced that the developmental writer is intimidated by voluminous comments given all at once, while the more experienced writer is better able to handle more detailed explanations and criticisms of finer points.
Here are some tips I have learned on the job regarding commenting on student writing:
1. Recognize the student as a writer. Then recognize the writer as a student. It is important that students recognize themselves as writers. In order for them to do so, it is important that we as their mentors recognize them as writers with important thoughts to communicate. After acknowledging the writer, then recognize that the writer is, in fact, a developmental writer—i.e., a student writer. Remembering this will help the critic to realize appropriate expectations and possibly slow the flow of red ink on the page.
2. Always offer positive feedback first. Recognize the writer’s accomplishments
in his work.
This is not always easy. If the reader is having difficulty finding one positive aspect of the student’s writing, at least recognize that the student started the paper. For many students, that is the biggest hurdle anyway.
3. Address higher order concerns before lower-order concerns.
In the larger scheme of things, having a good thesis statement, being organized, and supporting one’s premises with examples are generally more important than writing a paper that is free of grammatical and spelling errors. Even when the paper is in the multiple-draft stage, and the thesis is clear and content development is excellent, it is important to mention these successes first, before commenting upon lower-order concerns such as mechanical errors.
4. The more help the student seems to need, the less “help” the
tutor should offer on each draft.
Over-helping can be overwhelming to students who are struggling as writers. If a student offers a paper that lacks a thesis, paragraph organization, coherent sentences, and correct spelling and grammar, he will be overwhelmed if the tutor tries to address all of these issues at once. It is better to address one or two major issues at a time, and then look at other errors in subsequent drafts.
5. It is essential to resist the urge to mark every error.
Unless one is serving as a proofreader, this is counterproductive. It is discouraging to students when their papers bleed with red ink or “track changes” bracketed comments. It is also important that students learn to proofread and find errors on their own. Marking one or two examples of patterns of error can show the student what kinds of errors to look for and correct in the draft.
6. It is important for a tutor to remember that learning to write is an ongoing
process, and that the paper at hand is one draft.
Even a finished paper can be improved. Showing a student the errors in one draft is important, but showing a student how to avoid similar errors in the future is priceless.
I invite you, my colleagues, to share your experiences and your best practices
regarding student writing. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Questions or comments? Contact the author at email@example.com.