Help Your Students Become More Mindful Editors

“How many of you would keep listening to a CD—even of your favorite band—if the CD regularly skipped?” That’s the question I ask my students. Although the question keeps evolving (and now that students have abandoned CDs for iPods, I may have to come up with another analogy), my point doesn’t change. Even in pleasurable pursuits, we tolerate distractions or interference only to a degree, after which we abandon the activity.

For too many years, I felt obligated to toil through student papers that were the editing equivalent of a badly scratched record (for those who remember the days of vinyl). No more.

I now tell my students that when I read their final drafts, I am willing to overlook a few minor editing-level errors, but I will stop reading if the accumulation of errors becomes too great. Along with their paper assignments, I provide all my students—from freshmen to graduate level—with a paper checklist. It states, “No matter how brilliant your ideas are, if they are poorly packaged, I cannot appreciate them.”

Sometimes, I offer another analogy: a paper with brilliant ideas that is poorly edited is the equivalent of a designer dress made of expensive fabric that has, nevertheless, been poorly cut or unevenly stitched. Such a dress would attract few buyers. When student ideas are less sophisticated but presented without a myriad of usage errors, I compare these essays to off-the-rack clothing made from more economical fabric that, nevertheless, has been carefully stitched and neatly pressed. By refusing to read poorly edited papers, I’m trying to teach students that all writers must attend to those aspects of writing that enhance the readers’ understanding and enjoyment.

Even though student writing skills vary considerably, I am still convinced that all students can attend to the “packaging” of their ideas. Those who don’t bother to do so are clearly making a choice. And it is legitimate, then, for faculty to respond by choosing not to invest time reading what students have chosen to care so little about. Since I instituted my policy of not reading papers that don’t adhere to the checklist, not only have students uniformly done a better job of editing, but I have stopped reading and subsequently failed only three papers.

I teach English, so my paper checklist includes items about appropriate citation form, punctuation around quotations, appropriate tense for literary analyses, underlining of book and journal titles, and admonitions to spell check and proofread, among others. Obviously, paper checklists could be developed and tailored to the particular kinds of writing required in various disciplines.

My analogy of listening to a flawed CD helps students understand why I find it so difficult to read an essay riddled with surface-level errors. They learn why careful editing is important. Providing the checklist clarifies expectations, and I find it helps students become more invested in their work as they cultivate habits that may just carry over to their writing for other courses as well.

Noralyn Masselink, professor and coordinator of Adolescence English Education, SUNY Cortland

From On CDs That Skip and Papers with Editing Mistakes, March 2008, The Teaching Professor.