Responding to Student
Texts: Preliminary Drafts
By Melinda Kreth
Revising a draft is much more than simply re-editing superficial features like spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Insofar as revising means “re-visioning” the entire text (its content, style, format, etc.) from multiple perspectives (yours, other students’, the discipline at large), then revising drafts also gives students a chance to revise their thinking.
Unfortunately, some teachers resist the practice of responding to drafts and simply require students to turn in a final paper. Class size and time constraints can certainly affect decisions about whether to respond to drafts, but many teachers simply may not recognize the potential benefits of such response.
By reading and responding to a preliminary
draft, you can
identify early on any problems students are having with the course material itself or with ways of writing about the material
determine whether your own assignment instructions were clear
help students recognize the need to meet readers’ expectations
help students avoid the purgatory of procrastination they often fall into when simply writing a final paper at the end of course.
ensure that the writing students produce is actually their own.
Drafts are not finished products, so
you should respond to them as works in progress. Respond in terms of the
draft’s effect on you as a reader. You might respond in terms of any or
all of the following (all of which overlap to some extent):
focus (Is there a fixed topic? Or does it seem to wander? Is it too broad? Too narrow? Does the paper answer two crucial questions: "So what?" and "Who cares?")
purpose (What’s the writer trying to do in this text? Inform? Persuade? Tell a story? Is this the purpose you intended?)
organization (Do the ideas in the text progress logically? Is there a beginning, middle, and ending? Does the ending have anything to do with the beginning and middle?)
genre/format (Has the writer included all the necessary sections? What’s missing?)
clarity (Are there places where words or sentences are ambiguous or where connections between ideas aren’t yet explicit?)
content (Has the writer addressed all the relevant issues? What questions still need to be addressed?)
Your response should be specific enough to give students a good idea of what they need to do to improve the draft, but you don’t need to write a manifesto at the end of each draft. If a sentence or paragraph confuses you, say so. Simply write, “This sentence confused me” or “I don’t understand what you mean here” instead of scribbling “ambiguous” or “awkward” in the margin. But be sure to include positive comments on what you think the student has done well, e.g., “Your description of this process is easy to understand.”
A word of caution: When responding to preliminary drafts, don’t focus too much attention on problems of grammar, punctuation, and style unless they seriously mar the readability of the text. Even when problems do seem serious, resist the urge to comment on or edit all of them. It is sufficient to point out that the problem exists, explain that the problem reduces the effectiveness of the paper, and tell students to review the problem in a grammar and style handbook.
There are a number of methods for responding
to drafts, methods that can be used alone or combined. You can, for example,
write very little on the drafts and instead discuss them with students in conferences
record your responses on audio-tapes provided by students
incorporate peer revision workshops into your course plan, allowing time for students to read and critique each others’ drafts.
write a hard copy or email memo to the entire class, focusing on the areas of improvement common among most drafts (thus allowing you to avoid the frustration of repeating the same comments on draft after draft ad infinitum, as well as forcing students to critically examine their own writing to determine whether any or all of the problems referred to in the memo actually apply to their individual papers).
Let your course objectives and time constraints guide decisions about responding to preliminary drafts. Whatever you do, your students will benefit far more from the process of revising than from simply handing in a paper at the end of the semester. Students can revise their thought processes by revising their writing, and your responses to preliminary drafts will help them do both.
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