Created: 1999-04-20
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Before the Forest, the Trees:

A Small-Mistake-Elimination Exercise for Building Writing Awareness

Josh Skov

Teaching writing poses at least two pedagogical challenges: getting students to pay attention to detail, and getting students to take writing as a project more seriously. These are not one and the same, as we well know from the use of spell-checking programs. Furthermore, overbearing attention to small mistakes by a teacher carries the danger of distraction: swaths of red ink around spelling and grammar flaws appear superficial and hypocritical when the stated aim is Good Writing in a much deeper sense.

However, it is possible to move both these agendas forward at once. I have found an exercise that attacks the disease of small mistakes while emphasizing the real reasons that one should care about and take pride in one's writing. I call the exercise Small-Mistake Threshold By Consensus. As I've done it, it has four steps, the final three of which are to be carried out in the same session:

  • For the first writing assignment or two, conspicuously note all small errors and comment on them.
  • Emphasize that heaps of small mistakes send a bad message to readers (more on this below).
  • Lead a discussion by asking the students what they think is an acceptable number of mistakes per page. Gently guide the class toward a consensus, which is usually two or three mistakes per page.
  • Announce that you will thereafter read and grade assignments normally ­ but when you find a page with more than the allowable number of mistakes, you will stop, hand back the paper, and request a rewrite with corrections. Specify that you will do so until the paper is under the Consensus Threshold.

This 'technique' in fact consists of nothing more than presenting the problem properly. In particular, I have found the exercise to be more effective when the second part above combines some or all of the following points, which I phrase below more or less as I have spoken them to my students:

  • "Of course, I personally don't think that a few spelling mistakes mean that your arguments are bad. But some people will get distracted by the glitches in your presentation, and they will judge not just your presentation but your ideas. You just can't take the risk of not getting your point across."
  • "When you hand someone a piece of writing that's full of simple mistakes that you could have easily cleaned up yourself, that's like saying, 'My time is worth more than your time' ­ and you never want to send that message to anyone, especially not a boss or, say, a GSI..."
  • "You might think that you can always clean up a sloppy draft when you really need to. But writing, like most skills that you have to learn, is about habits and practice. You need to build good habits early on, and get practice proofing your own work."

Despite the sly and disingenuous feel to a couple of the comments, this exercise works, I think for two reasons. First, attention to detail is no longer just boring, time-consuming busywork, but truly integral to the writing process ­ a vital part of successful communication. Second, the students are shown that they have their own standards to live up to.

Since the idea may still seem a bit far-fetched, let me address several concerns and give some detail:

  • For the purpose of the error count, focus only on objective mistakes. As conscientious graders, many of us comment on ambiguous sentences and poorly structured paragraphs; but this exercise must be aimed at the narrowly defined Small Mistake ­ spelling, punctuation, conjugation, etc.
  • Don't worry: you won't get regrades ad infinitum. With the new rules on the table, few students will risk having to rewrite an assignment, and fewer still want to do it twice.
  • Have fun with and be relaxed during the roundtable on the acceptable number of errors. Answers typically range from zero (which brings silent looks of fear) to as high as eight or ten (which brings laughs). But any class with just a shred of pride will inevitably settle in around two or three.
  • A series of small assignments, rather than a one-shot term paper, allows for the necessary iterations. Short papers also facilitate a focus on detail without straining the attention span of the students ­ for most of us, carefully proofreading ten pages is much more than twice as difficult as carefully proofreading five.

The goal is not just to reduce the number of small mistakes, but to induce students to improve their writing by living up to their own standard. By allowing students both to participate in the process and to hear their peers' opinions, the process of writing suddenly seems closer to home. The impetus to write better then comes not just from a brainy, distant prof or snooty grad student, but from themselves.

(I would like to credit my father, a long-time college professor, for suggestions and insights that led to the development of this exercise.)

Josh Skov's submission (one of the winners, in fact) for the U. C. Berkeley Teaching Effectiveness Prize.

Feedback is always very welcome...

Yes, if you and I are talking to each other and understand each other, it doesn't matter whether we're using "proper English" or not.

But if you are writing an article that I and hundreds of other people are going to read, or if we're co-workers who have never met and you have to send me a message about something important, then we shouldn't have to waste time establishing a common understanding of terms and grammar before getting to the content of your message. We need to have a standard that all of us know about in advance. So if you're going to be communicating in the English-speaking academic and business world, you should know and use the standard forms of English used in that world.

Yes, these rules are arbitrary; the definition of "kilogram" is also pretty arbitrary, but it's a good thing we all agree on how much a kilogram weighs. Yes, knowing these rules is trivial compared with knowing, say, advanced economic theory; that's why people should know them before they graduate from high school. The people who teach writing to graduate students are making a last-ditch attempt to make up for failure in the rest of the educational system.

In my work as a technical writer, I have to read the white papers that programmers write to summarize new features of my company's products. When smart people who can't write have to communicate in print, the results aren't pretty.

Contributed by Seth Gordon (sgordon@kenan.com) on September 30, 1999

I have been thinking about Skov's piece on writing for a few months now. I am a fellow graduate student of Josh's and perhaps it is out of envy that his work is so admired that I constantly come back to thinking about this piece. However, I still can't shake the nightmare of what it would be like to have Mr. Skov as my writing tutor in an upper level, say, eocnomics course.

Consider yourself a member of this hypothetical class.You are studying the impact of immigration on American wgaes. You are asked to write a short comment on one of Williamson's papers. In the hypothetical paper it turns out you have more than a few spelling errors but you have come up with a better method of estimating the impact of immigrants on domestic wages.

Now Mr. Skov would have spent the greater protion of a half hour grading your paper and making comments. You would be correcting the paper which would take nearly half an hour or more. The total time spent on correcting errors in spelling and "grammar" being an hour or more.

Linguist Robin Lakoff argues forcefully that as long as we understand each other the words that come out do not matter. Another linguist Suzanne Fleischman argues that "today's grammatical mistakes are tomorrow's grammar." Now if these specialists are to be believed, one, two or three spelling errors should not in the long run make any difference while the correction of them would come at substantial short run cost.

In sum knowing you made an error may be important but I would argue strongly that teaching writing should be much more concentrated on more substantive issues such as logical coherence and clarity.

About how to teach that...well I guess I should create a piece for next year's writing contest.

Contributed by Chris Meisssner (meissner@econ.berkeley.edu) on September 11, 1999.

Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax

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