In my first year of grad school, I handed my second reader a copy of my masters thesis proposal. About a week later, she returned it to me covered in red ink. She said, that’s the last time I expect you to make any of those mistakes. I’m certain I didn’t magically drop all of those errors in future writing, but I did pay close attention to every word she circled and marked up to figure out what I had done wrong, and to get a sense of how to write better the next time.
When I started as faculty I always handed students drafts in hard copy. Usually we would sit together and go through my comments, page by page. I even had a list of editing shorthand that I used, things like AWK for awkward and TS for tense switching.
Now I almost always email students a copy of their paper as a Word document with track changes and comments. I have mixed feelings, however, about simply correcting things in track changes. You know how you grade students’ exams, spending substantial time explaining where you deducted points and why? And when you hand them back you realize they are just looking at the grade on the last page? Well, with student theses and manuscripts, I am concerned that sometimes, some students simply accept all of the changes without actually going through and seeing what the suggested changes are, or trying to figure out why I wanted to change it.
So, depending on the student and where in the editing process we are, I may handle this process differently. If we are early in our time working together, I try to mark things carefully and write a lot of comments explaining what I think needs to be done. If there are errors that happen frequently, I may correct it the first few times it happens with a note, and I may even write “I stopped correcting these errors after this one. I marked some of them, but you should reread the whole paper carefully for more instances of it.” After that, I either just write a comment (e.g., tense switching) or simply highlight it for them to figure out what the issue is.
Similarly, if there is a lot of awkward phrasing, I may rewrite a couple of early ones as examples, and then just start marking awkward phrases/sentences. Or if, for instance, the student is reporting on 10 betas in a regression, and they are all written unclearly, I may rewrite the first one, and tell the student to rewrite the remainder using the one I rewrote as a model.
If we’ve been working together for a while, and the student makes an error that I know she commonly makes and I’ve corrected on prior papers (or drafts of this paper), I likely will comment on the first one, explaining it’s another instance of error X that we’ve talked about before.
There are times that I don’t use editing as a teaching moment. If, for instance, the student has defended her dissertation (and thus isn’t a student anymore!) and we are trying to get it published, I may spend more time editing the text outright and less time explaining or asking the student to fix things herself. At that point I’m an author of the document as well, so I’m more comfortable with inserting my own writing.
Good, clear writing is such a critical skill in academia. We as mentors have to make sure that, no matter what medium we use, we do not treat the editing of student work as if we were a book editor “fixing” things for someone else. Instead, it’s essential that we use this opportunity to teach students how to be better writers.
“Giving Students Feedback in Track Changes While Still Teaching Them to Write first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on June 14, 2018.”