Responding to Surface Errors with Minimal "Marking"

  1. Resist the urge to edit. Recent research in composition suggests two things: first, that students learn far more about error-correction when they are required to find and fix their own errors, and second that the revision process itself motivates cleaner drafts.  When teachers use multiple drafts, students will find over half of their own errors without any prompting.  Shift responsibility to the students themselves to self-correct.
  2. Recognize that over-emphasis on "correct" writing too early in the composing process may cause writer's block.  This "monitoring" is like examining each word or structure in a "grammar spotlight."  When novice writers write about new ideas in unfamiliar genres, they need an opportunity early on to shut down their monitor in order to focus first on meaning making.
  3. If errors hinder your reading, focus on two or three kinds of errors you see recurring in the paper. Put a number by the mistake the first time you see it and explain the error. When you see the same mistake, put the same number beside it—no need to re-explain.  Or mark the number of errors in each line with a series of small x's in the margin.  Or key the errors you see to the chapter in a handbook or writing guide that explains the error and shows how to correct it.

    Syntax errors are often harder to categorize (and for students to fix). You can explain what a syntax error is, fix one or two sentences, and mark others for the student to fix on his/her own.
  4. Or edit one paragraph thoroughly and explain the errors. Tell the student it is his/her job to edit the rest of the paper the same way and resubmit. If you know the errors are due to carelessness, give the student a late grade when he/she resubmits.
  5. Make students consider your comments more fully by requiring revisions.  Because students generally don't read your commentary unless revision is required, your marking errors in one paper may not improve the next.  If you expect students to improve their writing based upon your feedback, give them a reason to act on your response.
  6. Sit on your hands while you read.  Afterwards, respond only to global matters of content development, organization, and meaning making.  If you allow students to revise and resubmit papers, consciously limit yourself to 2-3 elements that the next draft should address, and teach your classes to do the same as they peer review each other's drafts.
  7. If you don't allow students to revise, ask them to include a cover memo on the next paper explaining what they have paid particular attention to in this paper based on your comments on the last.  Do not accept the paper otherwise.
  8. You don't need to grade all writing the same way, e.g.: mark "completed/not completed" or "acceptable/unacceptable" or "professional/unprofessional"; use a simple rating scale; comment only on the items you've focused on in the unit. Be sure to tell students what these ratings cover.
  9. Explain to students that they are still responsible for readable writing.  Remind students that one hallmark of persuasive, communicative writing is relatively easy reading.  But the best time for attention to sentence-level errors is late in the composing process, when students have already figured out what they want to say. Attending to surface errors sooner in the process only distracts students or blocks them from meaning-making.