Writing is hard work that involves combining different skills in order to produce something that is clear, focused and interesting. Sometimes it can take many different drafts in order to create this sort of text. It can be very emotionally charged and thought provoking. Feedback and peer review can be an invaluable resource when doing this, as long as the people editing the work are serious in their task. If all that person writes as feedback is sentence and grammar structure then their effort was essentially wasted. Penny Kittle writes that it is “a mistake to litter someone’s writing with error correcting if there is no indication on the piece that the voice of the writer was heard and the message in the writing has been received” (212). She is completely correct.
When writing anything, whether it is creative fiction, a memoir, an analytical piece, a research paper, and the list could go on, the chances that what is very first written will end up as the final draft is pretty slim. There is almost always some revision, unless the author is an absolute genius or kind of lazy. That being the case, it is a waste of time to focus on grammar and sentence structure for review at this stage. Kittle says what any teacher or peer editor should be looking for is the content of the piece and encourage the expansion of that content. Look for the writer’s voice and the clarity of that person’s topic. Given that if the writer needs to expand on ideas or possibly cut out certain parts of the paper, it is a waste of time to correct errors in that section. Why spend a half hour correcting sentence structure and grammar in a section of a paper that ends up being cut out in the end?
Kittle also says that this is incredibly discouraging. She writes about her own personal experience where she receives a peer edited paper and all that person had to write about was her use of adjectives instead of strong verbs. She was angry and hurt, and she completely shut down in relation to that person. That is the way students will feel. I have personally felt that way myself when someone looks at my paper and does not comment on my thesis or idea. I would not want to risk alienating kids by doing that to them. It is natural to feel angry in that situation. When a person works really hard to write something and then feels like they were not understood, it is really tempting to give up. That is not the response that I want to get out of my students.
To avoid this kind of discouragement Kittle looks for the positive in her student’s work. She gave an example of a horribly written first draft where the grammar was almost non-existent, but instead of focusing on the negative aspects of the paper she found the positive. Everybody needs to be encouraged and some teachers do not get that. By pointing out and expanding on the idea, with positive feedback, students will feel encouraged and possibly motivated. I know when I was a student and teachers approached my papers the way Kittle does I got excited to revise my paper and do my very best work.
There is a time to edit for spelling and grammar. That sort of thing is important in a professional community. I think that the place for that is later in the writing process. When you are teaching kids how to write, start with their idea. Let them know you realize what they are trying to write about and help them write about it. Once the organization and focus of the paper is developed, move onto the next step. Instead of angering and alienating kids, boost their confidence by writing what was good and what needs to be expanded.