Bianca Falbo, CWP Assistant Director

If you’re teaching with writing for the first time, here are some strategies you might find helpful for responding to drafts:

  • When you receive a new set of papers, read through all of them quickly to get a sense of the ways in which students have (and have not) understood the assignment. Resist the temptation to do a lot of writing in the margins on this initial quick read. Instead, consider what you notice about the set of papers in general: e.g., are there aspects of the assignment that the class as a whole seems to resist or simply get wrong? What does the writing say about strengths/weaknesses of the class as a whole?  What do students seem to come into the class knowing how to do as readers/writers? What kinds of things do they appear to need help with? (If it’s early in the term, consider whether there are individual writers who stick out as being, at least potentially, in need of additional help and arrange to meet with them ASAP.)
  • Use your initial assessment of your students’ writing as a whole to guide your comments on individual papers. If you find yourself writing the same comment over and over, consider instead sharing it with the whole class in a group email or memo, and then making a few specific comments on individual papers. You can also look at a few of the papers in class (see below). When you comment on individual papers, resist the temptation to write all over the paper. Research shows that students process one or two comments and ignore the rest. So you’re better off focusing on what you think the student most needs to know/hear/do in response to a given assignment and leaving the rest for later in the course. If you’re commenting on a draft, consider what two or three things the student needs to know or to do first in order to revise the paper. (The most common issues on early drafts are related to understanding the assignment and working with sources.) If you’re commenting on a final draft, consider how the paper has changed (for better and worse) across successive drafts. And consider, too, whether there’s anything you can say about the writing that will help the student approach the next assignment.
  • Obviously, you want to make constructive comments. One of the most helpful things you can do for a student (or any writer, for that matter) is to say back to him/her what you see the paper trying to say/do. Think of yourself as an interested reader, i.e., as someone who wants to understand, someone whose job it is to help the writer say what he/she wants to say. (“When I read your paper, what I noticed was . . . “ or “As a reader, I had difficulty following the discussion here because . . . “)  Don’t hesitate to draw on your own experience as a writer. Ask the kinds of questions and give the kinds of advice that you find helpful from readers of your writing. There are a lot of different ways to organize comments, but probably the most common is to have marginal comments on specific issues and then a general comment at the end, summarizing the marginal comments and highlighting what’s most important. It’s also common to begin the end comment with positive feedback (“What I liked about your paper . . .” “What really struck me . . . “ “What I found most interesting . . . .” etc.) and then offer advice for revision (“When you revise, my advice is that you focus first on . . . “).
  • An easy way to save yourself writing the same thing over and over is to look at representative examples of student writing in class. A good discussion of an interesting paper can save you a lot of ink. To have such a discussion, consider choosing a middle-of-the-road paper: not the best and not the worst. Choose a paper, that is, that looks like the kind of paper written by most students in the class (again, this is why it’s helpful to get an initial sense of your papers before you do anything else). That way, when they go home and face their own writing, it will be easier for them to identify similarities between what you discussed in class and what you want them to do on their own. The more students look at their own writing and writing by their peers, the more opportunities they have to develop a vocabulary for talking about writing, an important goal of FYS. Let’s say that one thing you notice about your papers is that students are using big block quotes as if the meaning of those quotes is self-evident, failing to use transitions like “according to. . .” or “as so-and-so explains” and failing to follow up with any kind of interpretation. If you choose for class discussion a paper that struggles with this issue—doesn’t do it perfectly, but does try to do something—students can learn to recognize this tendency in their own writing. In the end, you have a much easier time if you think of your job not simply in terms of producing better writers (because what makes writing good varies from one discipline to the next), but of producing students who better understand their process of writing and who are better readers of their own writing in relationship to different disciplinary conditions.
  • Another time saver is to limit the marking of errors. Look instead for patterns of error, mark a couple examples, and tell the student he is responsible for finding and fixing the rest. Consider having students keep an Error Worksheet.

If a paper seems to you to have a lot of surface errors, consider the following:

  • Does the paper seem, in general, to have been hastily prepared?  If so, you might return the paper to the student without comments. Tell her you will read and comment on the paper only after she has taken the time to proofread it.
  • Do the errors prevent you from understanding what the writer is trying to say?  If not, return the paper and ask the student to make the necessary corrections. If so, a conference with the student may be in order.
  • When you do mark errors, choose those that are most pressing and/or that interfere with your understanding the paper: e.g. vague pronoun references (“this”s,  “that”s, and  “which”s without clear antecedents) can make it difficult to follow a discussion.  But these “errors” often occur because students haven’t fully worked through their ideas. Or because they’re struggling with complicated ideas. Consequently, when you focus a student’s attention on this problem, you’re also asking him or her to “unpack” his thoughts or say more.

Finally, a concern expressed often by FYS and VaST faculty is that talking about writing in the ways suggested here takes time from talking about the course content, especially if you do so during class time. It can if you talk about writing in the abstract—if you spend a lot of time, for example, teaching them to write the perfect introductory paragraph (as if there were such a thing). What you want to do is use student writing to talk about the course topic—especially to get a sense of how students are understanding what you’re teaching them. Make them do some informal writing about the reading and use that as the basis for class discussion.  Photocopy excerpts from papers that will focus class discussion on the course issues you want students to pay attention to. If the writing is awkward, that generally means the student is struggling to comprehend the reading. And that’s not a bad thing. That is, if you’re really challenging your students, their writing will become more complicated.  If there’s no sign of struggle, then there’s likely no learning taking place.

Another common concern is that the FYS doesn’t seem to really help students “improve” their writing. But it’s worth considering what kind of “improvement” we’re looking for. Remember that in FYS, writing assignments should focus on process rather than (simply, or only) product: Writing to learn rather than learning to write. Your students know how to write; what most struggle with is understanding their processes of composing, and gaining control over them. Students have to improve their thinking about writing before they can improve as writers.