Red ink and the mud-wrestler's grasp: In defense of line-editing as a practice and stragegy for esl/efl writing teachers

Thomas Leverett, 7-09

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One reason I put myself in the middle of the editing debate (how should an esl/efl teacher edit, or correct, a student's writing, if at all?) was to learn and gain insight into my own habits, which I have found at the same time stubbornly intransigent, and, at the same time, constantly changing. They are changing partly because of the limits of the job; we writing teachers are getting increasing numbers of students with decreasing amount of time to deal with them. The need to do what is best for our students in the limited time we have available makes it extremely crucial that we justify everything we do for them in terms of its measurable results, not only in terms of what they say they want, but also in terms of what is demonstrably good for their writing. So, every move we make is put under the microscope of value, basically, of our own time. I am grading at one and two in the morning, on Sunday afternoons, and sometimes in every free minute between classes. Is it really necessary to proofread or edit their every word?

As one who has proofread their every word for years, I would think it would be easier to give up, and was surprised that, when push came to shove, I was unable to give it up. Instead I gave up other activities; in this case, I gave up caring whether they actually took those little marks I made and actually finished the process of "fixing" what they wrote before they published. Rather, I just said, it's your work, fix it or not if you wish; you get credit merely for publishing, and, after this, I'm not going to interfere anymore.

I should define my terms, since I became uncomfortable with the "Just fix it" analogy for line-editing, and changed it to "mud wrestling," in reference to the slippery nature of actually identifying students' true meaning, and getting it to a place where I would find that same meaning in their words. "Just fix it" implies that they were wrong, and I somehow had the tools or the method to change it simply, much as a proofreader would simply do the best he/she could and return the document; and it's never been that way, really. I do my best, but I find myself limited; I don't really know their language; I sometimes do what's easier, in terms of my own markings, and sometimes, the things they say become so common to me, that I don't even recognize them as ungrammatical anymore. Yet through knowing them I've come to recognize the unbearable burden a poor grammar has on their ability to get done what they need done; in short, it's like I've keyed in to the central problem in their lives.

This brings up the point that I have actually had my students publish (on weblogs) most of what they write for years, and this is why I had justified proofreading; in presenting it to the public (and to each other, our most avid readers), I had assumed that they wanted it as grammatical as possible, and in fact found that they were grateful that what they wrote could be made grammatical, and publishable, as part of a process of real communication; at least they acted that way, though I had very little solid proof that they really felt that way, or that all this line-editing (proofreading) was in fact improving their writing. I did notice several things that helped me justify the process though. First, they were always very interested in whatever correcting marks I made, and eager to set about working with the language- what they had written vs. what I had changed it to (read as: what I had interpreted as what they meant, or, how I would have said what I interpreted as what they meant)- as if to see the answers to a puzzle they had spent some time on. Second, they considered my system better than one in which we spent a lot of time on organization, expression, and the other features of writing which are somewhat nebulous to them, in comparison to grammatical issues which are so painfully apparent at every move; in other words, they have always paid far more attention to what we said about little points of grammar, than to what we said about grander points of organization and discourse, which they considered different relative to any different situation (and thus irrelevant to them, off soon to a college in the university that might be different from that of each of their classmates). Third, the successful publishing of grammatical work, and the communication that resulted from it, had enough rewards in its own right that I wanted them to keep publishing, and was unsure about publishing things that in essence made their grammar, and by extension their writing, look bad. And finally, since my strategy included having them write many kinds of work (from entertaining to serious essay) and having them write as much as I could get out of them, the way the grammar was changed and worked on almost as an afterthought allowed them to reflect on the changes in a way that was in somewhat of a hurry, yet clearly without great pressure; they did it, and they thought about it, but they did lots of other things too, and knew that their grade relied on many other things besides getting the grammar right, although that was certainly part of the original grade. This tended to make them relax, actually, confident that whatever they wrote would turn out ok, and free to experiment with new structures and find out what would happen.

So I had some reasons for my arduous proofreading tasks, which were considerable, given a large quantity of writing that my students did, of all kinds and at all times; yet I listened to the other side too and wondered, given increasing limitations, whether I should give up the proofreading part in favor of a quicker process which would allow them to write more, or which would allow more true reflection on what they did, perhaps having them write several drafts of each essay, proofread or not, in order to do serious work on their support, or their organization, or some such. I'd become impatient with this process-approach kind of process, mostly because I'd seen them become impatient with it, and it got in the way of both publishing and having them write truly enough new work to change their habits and make them more confident. I agreed partly with the arguments of the no-edit camp: first, that proofreading destroys their confidence and makes them ultimately less able to write well; second, that it focuses them on their grammar when they should be focusing on other aspects; and finally, that the teacher has so much better stuff to do with his/her time. Could I not then skip the proofreading for at least some of what they wrote?

After my TESOL presentation I became increasingly aware that my own position (which could be described as just mark it or just fix it) was a minority position; in fact my presenting partner at one point said that of all the things a teacher could do, that was one that probably nobody would support. Most favored elaborate techniques to make the student notice his/her error and fix it himself/herself; or, doing nothing about the errors, concentrating more on organizational and expression matters. One waited until the very end to correct the grammar, but noticed that students would refer to that last draft, often well after that paper was finished, to study the editing marks. Of course, the vast majority of writing teachers at the conference didn't bother with that third player in the situation, the live audience, the reading public, who would be there forever if not at least until the end of the course. Many were concerned with how a student would write at a given exam which occurred at the end of their class; their students had to pass this specific exam by writing something that had no errors and was well-organized; so, they felt considerable pressure to bring to bear anything that would get the student to produce better work. As did all of us.

So, feeling pressure from both the teaching community (which sees simple proofreading as not the best way to handle esl students' writing), and pressure from the general constraints of time, and having carefully weighed all the arguments, I was still unable to give up the proofreading part of my own process. I was forced to accept the possibility that I was proofreading partly for my own satisfaction, that there was something in it for me, or perhaps at least something I was missing in my analysis.

There was, in fact, quite a bit in it for me. To me, proofreading a two or three page essay took fifteen to twenty minutes; actually grading and commenting on it took maybe twenty or twenty five more. But I found it absolutely necessary to grapple with the word-level language before trying to see the global picture, or what they were saying at the paper level. I had to read word-to-word, sentence at a time, first; I couldn't grade it otherwise. And fixing it or changing it was my way of knowing it and remembering it. Actually writing on the paper was my way of making it say what I thought the student intended to say; that was how I'd then read the whole paper; and, if there was any ambiguity, I could write it out on the paper (in the form of two possible sentences and question marks, as if to say, is this what you mean?) and begin to piece the whole essay together in terms of what they were trying to write.

Second, I needed intimate familiarity with the way they pieced together language, because I needed to know when they weren't putting it together themselves; this often happened later in the term, with the big-ticket essays and papers that flew around in a hurry at the end, and in which one could easily lose a few sentences of plagiarism. If I had read thousands of their hand-written sentences, read them and truly interacted with them, I'd never lose a sentence of plagiarism; I always knew what wasn't original. Putting each essay together one word at a time was my best way of guaranteeing every piece of the research paper they ended up with; first, because they knew I was familiar with, and ok with, their grammar as it was, and second, because they knew they'd never get away with just outright stealing something else and using it.

Finally, I had considerable pride wrapped up in the final products, which were, after all, published and read by many. I wanted them to look good, and they did. I wanted them to say what they meant as strongly as possible, and they did, with my help of course. I wanted each collection of essays to validate what I did by being visible, public, but also clean, grammatical, beautiful (also formatted, referenced, linked). I'm sure I got more out of the publication of their work than they did, to some degree, and I knew there was something twisted about that, but I liked lighting up the weblogs and putting the newest papers up there; I had a lot invested in that. I hoped it improved their writing, but I had to admit that maybe I was projecting my own hopes; maybe their confidence was the same as it always was, in spite of communicating successfully with a live audience.

But, I let go of that final product; I stopped worrying about it. It was important to me to have that sentence-level discussion about what they meant, and how I would put it; but it was less important to have my absolute stamp of approval on that final product. I would tell them what I considered "standard" or right (and this included formatting as well as grammar; formatting, at least in the online world, is much less set in stone); but, in the end, I would back off and let them put whatever they wanted up there. In other words, I started giving them the points just for publishing, regardless of whether they followed my corrections successfully or not. And I told them what I was doing; I didn't hide the fact that I was basically too busy to reread everything they published.

And, sure enough, the better students continued to meticulously change and perfect every sentence; the less careful students would just let it go, not worrying about it. Or, they would be unable to read or respond to my comments, and/or too timid, or perhaps too busy or too tired, to ask me what exactly some mark meant. Some unedited work went up on the web (actually, this had been true previously also); I gave points for some essays that were, in my own opinion, not quite up to standard. But I stopped worrying about it. I'd done what I could.

In fact, there is lots of imperfect grammar on the web; not all of it was done by the hands of internationals. Their work fits in better with what's up there, in the end, for its imperfection, and it's truer to who they really are, because they're freer, now, to put it as they really want, regardless of how I feel about the way they said it. In this respect they are like the average MySpace high school user, who has become free with the language in the confident knowledge that most of their readers are their friends. There is some comfort, and confidence, in that. Somewhat like the boy who, meticulously dressed by his mother on his way out the door, scuffs up his outfit a little, just to fit in better with his friends. The best result is when they know clearly the difference between the options they have; then, they can do what suits them best, and it will always be a conscious choice. The invisible editor, or the "conscience", will take over, when I'm long gone.



Leverett, T. (2009, Mar.). Red ink and the OK corral, part of The Error Correction Frontier: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Discussion, Writing IS, T. Leverett and H. Wright, TESOL 2009, Denver CO.

Leverett, T. (2008, Mar.). Line editing as a way of life, from Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, Writing IS, Demonstration, TESOL 2008, NYC.

Nelson, M. W. (1991). At the Point of Need: Teaching basic and ESL writers

Note: this was moved here from in 2011.

Working paper: part of a larger, unfinished publication