One way to send the message that we're more concerned with improving papers than writers is to become editors as we evaluate our students' work. Many of us remember receiving graded assignments that were completely covered in red ink. These marks were as often corrections as they were constructive comments, and they might have left us with little sense of how to grow as writers. We do want our students to have a command of mechanics, but we need to ask if this is should be the primary concern for each writer. A student who struggles to focus on a main topic, wandering from one idea to another without any apparent logic, should be encouraged to address broader issues before attending to word and sentence level concerns.
So how do we deal with mechanics? First, keep in mind that they're more appropriately addressed in the later drafts of a paper. If a student ends up omitting an entire paragraph in the restructuring of a paper, we've wasted much of the energy we spent editing that paragraph. Furthermore, mechanical errors generally decrease as students grasp the larger issues of academic writing. Finally, when we do comment on mechanics, it should be with the same goal that informs any other comment: to build stronger writers. Rather than simply correcting errors, we can look for the underlying problem these errors demonstrate. For example, if a student repeatedly shifts between past and present tense, we might indicate in the margin that there is inconsistency in tense throughout the paper. Emphasizing that such errors compromise a writer's effectiveness with almost any audience, we can assign reading from a grammar text (or provide photocopied pages) and require that the student correct the problem before receiving a grade. This will allow us to focus on larger issues in comments corresponding to the final grade.
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