Choose a medium for commentary.
Once, writing instructors used a red pen, a practice borrowed from copy editors who, because they made line edits, wanted their marks to be clearly distinguished from the text. But, because we aren’t so much correcting student drafts but rather conversing with them as we reflect back to them the dynamics of our expert reading, red pens tend to send the wrong signal. Instead, most instructors ask substantive questions in the margins (using the “Insert Comment” function in WORD), and/or include thoughts toward revision at the end of the document.
Judiciousness and restraint are the keys to effective commentary. As an initial step, try reading a student’s work rom start to finish without inserting comments. This will allow you to get a sense of the whole argument, and will save you from intervening prematurely. While reading through a first time, it’s a good idea to make notes to yourself about sticking points and areas of confusion. When you begin the actual commenting, you will better be able to decide not only what to say, but also where to withhold comments. Students can only process so much; flooding them with questions tends to promote in their minds the mistaken view that their job is dutifully to answer all of your questions, not seeing the forest for the trees, adding to the draft without rethinking its shape and whole.
Many instructors use the “Insert Comment” function in word, not only because of its legibility, but also because comments can be deleted or revised. Some instructors have been known to look back through their many comments and delete a handful of them and strengthen for clarity and emphasis those that remain. Other instructors use audio comments, or a combination of audio and textual intervention. Kaizena® is a free-of-charge app that interfaces through Google Docs. It permits instructors (and peer reviewers) to comment by three means: (1) by inserting comments, much like WORD, (2) by inserting macros that the instructor creates and inserts into many students’ drafts, saving the instructor from repeating the same comment over and over again, and (3) by including your audio commentary. Jing® is another app that makes a video of whatever is on the instructor’s screen (as the instructor moves through the WORD file) and includes the instructor’s voice-over comments. Its file is emailed to the student.
Still other instructors meet with their students individually or in small groups to discuss the progress of a draft. It is not surprising that face-to-face meetings with the instructor are hands-down our students’ preferred mode of commentary. These meetings signal to our student writers that an expert reader cares about the success of an argument, and allows interactions that are particular to dyadic encounters. At other times, instructors prefer to meet with pairs or trios of students who are familiar with one another’s drafts. In these meetings, all of the readers can comment on a draft on the table since everyone has read the work and thought about the most important recommendations for growth and change. Whether instructors meet individually with their students or in small groups, it is appropriate to cancel class in order to accommodate these reviews. Such meetings are an important part of our pedagogy, not something added to the “real” class.
Selectively choose your interventions.
As mentioned above, instructors are tempted to comment excessively. But flooding a student with comments can thwart productive revision. Better to pose weighty questions that require robust rethinking (rather than quick revision). Better to explain to the student the gist of your experience as a reader rather than give what may be perceived as a “To Do” list. One might even number the comments in order of significance to help a student rethink and redesign rather than cut, paste and “rearrange the deck furniture.” If you don’t seen an argument and instead have been given sprinkles of information here and there, say so. Ask the student to formulate a new claim rather than tinker with a flimsy and ill-fated assertion. Let students know that the work ahead will matter, and that you are keenly interested in helping strengthen the paper.
Many instructors have gotten into the habit of marking errors by circling them, crossing them out, or labeling them with abbreviations (such as “sp” or “frag”). Research clearly indicates that the explicit marking of error has little value. Students correct the mistakes indicated, but this has little or no lasting effects on learning. Instead, in order to create a “teachable moment,” simply place a mark at the end of the line in which an error occurs. This signals that there is an error within that line of text, but it is the student’s responsibility to locate it and correct it. If you are using WORD to insert comments, you might consider recoloring the line of text in a different color font, which sends students the same message.
Comment on the effects of the essay as a whole.
Students depend on us not only to signal tangles in their prose, awkward phrasings, odd formulations, and incomplete thoughts, but to show them how the paper succeeds or fails in operating as a unified whole. Because many young writers, as they draft, move the paper forward new sentence by new sentence, they may fail to reread what they’ve written, or may forget what they had planned to say as they struggle with formulating an incipient sentence. One of the most useful comments we can make is to show them that something is “promised” earlier in the text, but never delivered on in the rest of the paper. Or, we might ask them to compare an early assertion (that says one thing) with a subsequent assertion (that contradicts the earlier remark). One might recommend that paragraphs be re0rdered or that whole chunks of discourse be deleted in favor of the writer extending her evidence, or detailing the consequences of an assertion. As she sits down to revise, it will be immensely helpful for a student to reconsider her work as a whole, and the instructor can help prompt that reconsideration.
Align your comments with techniques and principles addressed in class.
When possible and appropriate, you can signal to the student that what you’re interested in commenting on is a technique or principle that has been worked on in class. Though it may be surprising, students can get so immersed in the moment of their composing that they may temporarily forget that they are attempting something addressed in class. Instructors typically praise a student who is attempting (with whatever degree of success) to stipulate a definition, or qualify an assertion, or articulate a hidden assumption. Our students deserve to know that we value their rhetorical risk-taking. Many of the tactics we value are brand new to our first-year writers, who have been recycling tired and ineffective formulae for years. Sophisticated prose doesn’t just happen; it evolves through layers of practice. Don’t expect too little, but don’t expect too much.
Ask substantive questions.
When appropriate, pose substantive questions that require a measure of speculation and difficult thought. Such questions signal to our students that the issues they are taking up have complexities, contingencies, and multiple and competing responses. Invite them to take an alternative perspective into account. Ask them to envision a competing point of view. Guide them in recognizing why and for whom a particular orientation matters. This involves, in a sense, pathways of thinking beyond the immediacies of the draft. Every writer’s draft can benefit from the writer’s revisiting the entire territory of a controversy, or in recasting what’s at stake in embracing one or another assertion. Since drafts tend to be primarily devoted to working out and supporting the writer’s argument, it will likely improve the draft if writers bring freshly to mind relevant counterarguments and counterevidence which deserve to be acknowledged, conceded, or contested.