Today's students, even adult learners, were raised in homes and schools where reading and writing had to share time with t.v., movies, video games, HIV-prevention and anti-drug counseling, and after-school jobs. The 20-40-something graduate student is not less literate than before, but she has to be literate in many more media and content areas today than was once true. Research writing is a specific set of skills that take time to develop and a writing-intensive graduate program may be the student's best opportunity to gain those skills through a highly interactive writing process involving you, the mentor. The best way to help a student improve her or his research writing is to require it (making the parameters for each writing assignment as concrete as possible) and then provide timely, specific feedback as a discriminating reader (not editor).
Therefore, the next time you receive an intermediate draft from a student who is asking for your opinion/evaluation/approval, do not pop open the document in track changes and begin to rewrite the paper in the image of your favorite journal article. Rather, use the comments function in your word-processing app to respond to the draft as a reader so that the writer can see from your comments and questions how you experience the draft as an informed reader. You can use a scoring rubric you've picked up somewhere or a checklist (see below) to keep you focused on interacting with the draft rather than prosecuting it. Resist the temptation to fall back on summary judgments ("Awkward" or "Great point!") as a substitute for engaging with the student's argument and how s/he is making it. A student needs much more than your applause or disapproval to learn what works in writing as opposed to what does not. And isn't competency in the scholarly conversation, written and spoken, what you want for your students?
It is easy to find graduate writing rubrics on the web these days and not all are of equal quality. Ask the writing coaches at the PC Learning Commons for suggestions if using a rubric to guide your feedback interests you. There is a time for corrections and summative evaluation of final drafts but you will find it less painful when you know how to coach your students to create better finished products. For intermediate drafts, you can use this all-purpose reader's checklist to help you ask the right questions as you are reading, whether it's a great draft or a weak one. In the process, you might learn a thing or two about your own writing, compounding the benefits of learning to critique writing as an art developed for students of the 21st century.
A Reader’s Checklist
Because reading is difficult work, writers are obligated to meet certain standards that engage readers and reward them for their attention. For example, readers need key sentences that direct their attention to important points; these sentences must be written to reveal the writer’s thought, not to obscure it. Readers appreciate correct spelling and punctuation because these are signs of respect from the writer. Readers also expect the writer to be knowledgeable on the topic and to use a tone that fits the purpose and occasion of the document. A careful reader will ask these questions of a draft and shape her or his feedback accordingly:
When I read the paper does it…
· Reflect an awareness of who the writer is writing for and why?
· Focus on the assignment and topic without straying into irrelevant material?
· Have a significant and interesting focal point or thesis I could easily paraphrase?
· Provide me with credible details, examples, arguments, or other kinds of to evidence to support the thesis statement?
· Offer verbal and typographical cues to help me follow the information the writer has chosen to present?
· Contain clear, logical sentences that motivate me to read on?
· Avoid wordiness, clichés, pat phrases, and repetition?
· Contain words I can be expected to understand?
· Show respect for my time by being carefully proofread for spelling, typographical, formatting, and punctuation errors?