National Writing Project

Where Writing Really Begins

By: Randy Koch
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4
Date: 2004

Summary: Responding to students' writing, Randy Koch notes, is the most time-consuming and important part of a writing teacher's job. A teacher must do more than mark up students' errors if the students' writing is to improve. Grouping his thoughts under six guiding principles, Koch shares his approach to response: emphasizing students' strengths, clarifying what is expected in the next draft, laying some groundwork for revision, and taking into account students' readiness to apply the suggestions they receive. He gives examples of his commentaries on student essays.


Every semester their reaction is the same. Eyes wide. Fingers covering a gaping mouth. Heads turning from side to side to gauge their classmates' reaction. One or two audible gasps.

A few days ago these students turned in what they thought were the final drafts of the first essay for this college freshman composition course. Now I stand at the front of the room and hold up one of those papers, on which I've written comments. "Don't panic," I tell them as I slowly move the page from side to side like an oscillating fan, "when you see my handwriting all over your work."

One of the guys in the back row shakes his head and groans; someone stifles a nervous laugh.

"I try to be democratic about this, so I do it for everybody. Since I assume that you devoted a fair amount of time to writing this, I devoted a fair amount of time to responding." I smile. "But remember—just because you see a lot of my handwriting on your paper doesn't mean it's bad. Read my comments first. Whether it's a very good paper or a not-so-good paper, I tried to tell you what you did well and what you can do better."

They're listening now, having survived the initial shock of learning that someone read their work closely.

I place the essay with the others on the table at the front of the room, turn to the blackboard, pick up the chalk, and face the students again. "A lot of my comments or questions in the margins are about content," I tell them. "They should be self-explanatory, but if they're not or if you disagree or if you don't know what to do about them, talk to me. If you can't read my handwriting, let me know, and I'll translate it for you. Okay?" A couple of students smile, and others nod. "First, just a few things before I return your papers." Then we talk about the problems that most frequently recur and what can be done about them. Eventually I hand their papers back to them.

They sit quietly, tip their heads or turn their essays to the side to read a comment written along the margin, draw the paper close to their eyes to cipher words written between lines, or follow an arrow to the back of a page for something I couldn't finish on the front. They lean toward one another, whisper, nod, frown, and occasionally smile. Gradually the shock that I saw in most of their faces disappears. Then we talk about what's next for these essays.

That most students react with such physical alarm every semester when I show a class how I respond to their work reminds me that their experience with writing is very narrow and incomplete. Judging from their reactions, I suspect that on the rare occasions in the past when teachers have written a lot on their work, it's been negative; apparently the only indication of good work besides a grade has been the absence of written comments. However, if we expect students to write better, we have to do more than circle the spelling errors, write "frag" or "RO/Run-on" in the margin, and put a C- on the last page. Students have to see that writing teachers at all levels are interested in more than the grade; we have to be their best, most interested, and most critical readers. It is a role that demands much of us.

There's no question that responding to students' writing is the most time-consuming, challenging, and important part of a writing teacher's job. It's the kind of task that makes discussion about class size so important. It's why most freshman composition courses are taught by underpaid adjuncts. And it's the source of the difference between students who care only about the letter grade at the end of the paper and those who begin to care about their own words. If we fail to give our students' work the thoughtful, caring attention that we give the selections in the text, our best classroom instruction goes for naught, the finest writing prompts are pointless, students will continue to see grades as subjective and arbitrary, and their writing skills will show little improvement.

I admit it: I've nodded off more than once at my dining room table while grading essays, pen in my hand, chin on my chest, and the night outside our patio door swirling with bugs, headlights, and the occasional siren. I've resorted to bribing myself, vowing that once I sit down at the table with a stack of papers, I'll grade three complete essays before I get up again. Then I can have a snack, watch fifteen minutes of the Cowboys football game, or do something physical, like vacuum or take out the trash (both of which are deliciously tempting when I have essays to grade). I've tried getting up at 5 a.m. and reading papers until 7:15 while the apartment is quiet and my mind clearer than it was the night before. I've looked for things I can use in class, such as sentences slack with clutter; errors in spelling, especially the humorous results of relying too heavily on spell checkers; opportunities for combining sentences; and small gems that deserve praise—an especially vivid action verb, a memorable detail, realistic dialogue, an imaginative metaphor or simile.

These things help keep me going, but that's about all. In order to make responding to student writing manageable and the effective teaching method it can and should be, I constantly remind myself of six other things, each of which you'll find examples of in the draft of Edison Obregon's descriptive essay, which he wrote in my English 1301 class and which I marked and returned to him. (See figures 1, 2, and 3.)

Figure 1. The opening page of a student essay captures commentary.

In early drafts, correctness is of little importance; more important is what the writer tried to say and how well he or she said it. There's little point in fixing spelling and punctuation errors in sentences that may well be cut or dramatically recast during revision. Even though students often think that revising means correcting spelling and grammar and rearranging some of the punctuation, we need to first focus their attention on content and help them say as well as they can what they need to say. During this process we sometimes notice sentences and even paragraphs that either lack development or are off subject, such as some of the details on page 1 of Edison's draft. Our first instinct, of course, and the student's preference and expectation is that we tell the student what to do. But don't.

Instead, ask questions that help the student understand where important information is missing and let him or her decide what to add. For example, if the mother is an important character in a personal narrative but the writer provides little if any description of her, ask, "What does the mother look like?" "What color are her hair and eyes?" "What was she wearing the day this happened?" Or if the writer has not given details of where or when an event occurs, you might ask, "What time of day was it?" "Where in the kitchen were you when this happened—sitting at the table, standing near the door, leaning over the stove? Be specific." Use questions to focus students' attention on parts where you as a reader felt confused or shortchanged, as I sometimes did on Edison's draft. Similarly, if you make broad generalizations about parts of the piece—a weak introduction, a dull description, a vague conclusion, unconvincing dialogue—be sure you explain specifically why you made that generalization. Students need to know why it's weak, dull, vague, or unconvincing so that they can figure out what to do to improve it.

Figure 2. Comments throughout Edison's paper capture his reader's questions.

The writing and the writer are two separate things; criticism of the one should not imply criticism of the other. Often this is a difficult distinction for students to make, so beware of pointing an accusing finger: "Sandra, you didn't make the connection between your thesis and this example clear." Instead, focus on the effect that the writing had on you as a reader: "Sandra, the lack of explanation makes me wonder about the connection between this example and your thesis." Both statements address the same problem, but the first accuses the student of not having done something while the second suggests that the flaw is in the writing, not the writer, and helps to maintain the objectivity of both the writer and teacher. Focusing on the writing doesn't shift responsibility for revision; it simply lessens the student's impression that he or she is being faulted. Similarly, addressing students by name creates the sense that they're participating in a conversation with the reader, just as referring to some specific quality of the writing and its effect on the reader will make students feel that they're being encouraged and guided, not attacked and ridiculed. It's the sort of thing I tried to accomplish in the concluding comments on page 4 of Edison's paper. It personalizes the response and suggests that you're commenting specifically on his/her work rather than writing generic comments that might appear on many students' papers (even though they often do).

We cannot always be completely honest with our students about their writing and expect them to continue to write. I'm not suggesting that we should lie to them. Instead, let's tell them the truths from which they'll benefit most. Balancing "bad news"—identifying areas of content and mechanics that need work—with "good news"—complimenting things the student has done particularly well—makes it all more meaningful and more digestible. (See page 4 of Edison's draft, figure 3.) With too little criticism, students won't know what they need to work on; with too much, they might see writing as hopeless and simply give up. Also, beware of writing more on students' papers than they'll read. Don't overwhelm them. Consider how interested they are in improving their writing before you spend a lot of time on written criticism. I write considerably more on papers from creative writing students than on those by freshman composition students, and I write more on composition students' papers than I do on those by developmental English students. Always consider how much they're willing and able to do with a piece before you spend a lot of time marking it.

Figure 3. Edison's final page with concluding commentary.

Students' writing often improves as much when you tell students what they've done well as when you tell them what they've done poorly. Some writing teachers feel more confident focusing on the mechanical aspects of writing—the objective, right-or-wrong part that they and students can look up and verify in a handbook or dictionary—than addressing content, organization, or style. Consequently, too few teachers comment on the subjective things that students sometimes do well: writing an effective lead or ending, using sensory details, employing action verbs rather than weak helping or linking verbs, showing rather than telling, providing effective support, and sufficiently narrowing the focus. (Again, see figure 3.) While I'm aware that I should identify the errors students make—the awkward phrasing, the illogical or incomplete thought—I know it's not that simple. I also want to be sure that students know from my comments that there's hope, that the writing revealed Roxanne's anger, Rick's hilarity, or Jorge's confusion; that Dani's description—"The thunder rolled over my mother's sentence"—helped me see and hear the world in a new way; that, by implication, the student had succeeded, even if only on rare occasions. Sometimes it means praising a student just for trying—even unsuccessfully—to use a semicolon or including a single logical reason in an argument or creating an original simile or metaphor. It takes only a moment to write in the margin or between lines "good comparison" or "fine use of a colon" or "nice detail." If we can do this several times over the course of a paper, the student should begin to see that the purpose of revision is to lift the weak parts of the essay to the level of the parts deserving of praise.

The grades we put on our students' writing should be primarily a measure of the degree to which the writers applied the techniques that we taught them, not what we assume they've learned in previous classes. Whenever I assume in freshman composition that students entering the class already know what an essay is and what it should look like, I'm usually proven wrong by one or two students who turn in a three-page paper that consists of only one paragraph. If I assume that they understand what plagiarism is and what causes it, at least one student who used a paragraph from the Funk and Wagnall's Encyclopedia but didn't use quotation marks will claim that it's okay because "I put the source in those round bracket dealies at the end." If I assume that students know what clutter is and can recognize four or five of the most common symptoms of wordy sentences, I'll find several sentences that begin with "there" or "it," helping verbs like "would" or "was" tacked on to nearly every action verb, and all opinions qualified with "I think" or "I believe" or "In my humble opinion." If I assume that they understand and are able to use specific details, and I don't teach it, as a result, I'll be inundated with generalization after generalization about trust, honesty, success, and, of course, true love.

Writing well is tough, and, as a result, we need to teach and reteach fundamentals, show students how these techniques apply in the context of the new demands we put on them in middle school or high school or college, and focus on them when we respond in writing to our students' work. Anything less is the equivalent of an employer evaluating an employee before training that person to do the job.

A writing teacher's main task is not to criticize or correct but to diagnose. Leave the first to Noam Chomsky and Ilan Stavens, and the second to Miss Manners, but don't think that physicians have a corner on the market for the third. This is our true responsibility, regardless of what our teachers may have done to our work or to us. The goal is to look for patterns of success and failure and all the gradations between and to identify for each student—as I tried to do for Edison on his paper—those that recur most often and, as a result, most deserve our praise or most need the writer's attention.

Finally, a few rudiments. Use black or blue ink, not red. Comment on content throughout, but don't mark mechanics on more than a page or two of the paper (depending on the length). Circle errors in spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar, but don't fix them. Mark repetition with a highlighter to help the student see what the reader hears. Don't line out clutter; instead, put brackets around unnecessary words so the writer can see that only words—not meaning—have been cut. Narrow and focus both what you mark and what you expect the student to do in the next draft because it's here—where the writing meets the reader, and the reader reacts—that the act of writing really begins.

About the Author Randy Koch directs the writing center at Texas A&M International University, writes a monthly column called "On Writing" for LareDOS: A Journal of the Borderlands, and is a teacher-consultant with the South Texas Writing Project.

Special thanks to Edison Obregon for allowing the author and the National Writing Project to excerpt his paper. Obregon, currently attending Texas A&M International University in Laredo, hopes to complete his schooling with a degree in software engineering or computer science. Although English teachers and courses have intimidated him before, Obregon has now come to a better understanding of the subject.

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