You Can Teach Writing

Personal editing checklist is best with single-error edits.

The  most useful editing checklist is one that is specific to the most  serious grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors a student habitually makes.

But even a personalized checklist is no value unless students know how to use it for editing sentences in their own work.

When you are teaching expository writing, you must make sure students know the grammar they need for their writing — which is not the grammar they usually need for bubble tests — and know how to apply it in making grammar corrections in their writing.

Editing is detail work. Experienced writers may be able to edit a manuscript in one pass. Novice writers have to develop the ability to edit entire manuscripts by single-error grammar corrections in repeated passes through the manuscript.

Using a single-error correction strategy is much more effective at producing error-free prose than any grammar exercises students you could give students to do.

My simple strategy depends on students knowing the errors they habitually make. I recommend you create an Individual Mastery Plan for each student so they can each work on correcting  the errors they make.

Start with serious, habitual errors.

Let's say Miss Inky Fingers and Sammy have agreed that eliminating his three most frequent habitual errors will be Sammy's written grammar work for the year.

Sammy's Individual Mastery Plan lists these three habitual errors:

  • sentence fragments   
  • a missing comma after introductory element
  • confusing its and it's

It's Sammy's job to turn his IMP into an editing checklist.

Turn an IMP into an editing checklist.

All Sammy needs to do is to put himself into the picture as the person doing the editing.

Sammy's checklist looks like this:

  1. Correct sentence fragments I have written.
  2. Correct any sentences I have written that are missing a comma after an introductory element
  3. Correct any places where I confused its and it's.

Depending on Sammy's age, and command of grammar rules, you may need to help him write down how he'll go about making those corrections. For example:

  1. I'll correct sentence fragments I have written by adding the missing subject or missing verb.
  2. I'll find any sentences with a missing comma after an introductory element by finding the subject of the sentence and looking to see if there is introductory information to the left of the subject of the sentence. 
  3. I'll find any places where I've confused its and it's putting it is in their place. If the sentence makes sense, I will leave it's. If if doesn't make sense, I'll use the spelling its.

Look for checklist error #1.

If Sammy is going to eliminate  sentence fragments, instead of editing his paper he must go through the entire paper editing sentences one at a time for just sentence fragments.

Use color. To make focusing easier, Sammy can highlight every capital letter that begins one of his sentences (or what he hopes is a sentence) and every period that ends one. Then he can go through the paper examining the words between each pair of boundary markers asking himself, "Is this a whole sentence?"

Edit out errors. When he finds some group that has the boundary markers of a sentence but which is really a nonsentence, Sammy edits it so it becomes a complete sentence.

He does not look for any errors other than sentence fragments the first time he edits his paper.

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Look for checklist error #2.

If Sammy wants to get rid of his second habitual grammar error, he needs go through his paper a second time for the second item on his editing checklist. That means Sammy looks just for places where he has omitted a comma after an introductory element.

Since Sammy marked the sentence boundaries already, all he must do is read the sentences to see if there is anything ahead of the independent clause that needs to be separated from it by a comma. Editing sentences is relatively easy once Sammy knows which sentences to edit.

Look for checklist error #3

If Sammy wants to get rid of his third problem, he needs to correct his paper a third time, looking places where he confused its and it's.

Use color. Again, he uses a highlighter  — a different color this time — to identify every place where he used either its or it's. Then he looks at every place he highlighted and figures out whether he used the correct form.

Students who compose on a computer can use find and replace to help them identify their potential problem areas in easy-to-miss elements such as punctuation.

While Sammy is correcting for one type of error, if he spots another type of error he should correct it, but he must return to looking for the type of error on his editing checklist.

The hardest part of single-error editing is to avoid distractions.

Tips for teaching single-error editing

Savvy teachers have students apply the one-thing-at-a-time editing strategy at every time they complete a the written product.

If you are teaching the thesis and support writing process I recommend, the first time Sammy edits is when he completes his working thesis. At that point Sammy has just one sentence — a working thesis — to edit.

Have Sammy edit his working thesis for each of the errors on his editing checklist as the other students edit their working thesis for each of the errors on their checklists.

The next time Sammy should edit is when he finishes his writing skeleton™. At that point, Sammy probably has another three sentences to edit.

He will need to edit again when he has a complete plan. That could be as many as 27 sentences, but is more likely to be about half that number.

(You can have students edit when they have filled out their template for one body paragraph if that makes the editing chore seem less onerous.)

If you make students edit every time they finish a distinct written product in the writing process, you:   

  • make editing seem less formidable.
  • increase the students editing practice by 300 to 400% over editing once after composing.
  • increase students' confidence in their ability to correct their own work.

If you teach your students to do single-error corrections, their ability to spot errors in their work will gradually improve. Over time they will even be able to compose with fewer errors in the draft.

Congratulations! You've reached the end of the writing strategies.

Person crossing finish line is like student completing editing checklist.

This page about the editing checklist is the last of the eight writing strategies for students' use. If you've worked through the other seven and the instructional strategies, you have all the information you need to teach writing to teens and adults.

With my secret to teaching writing plus your smarts and good looks, you're going to be awesome!


Grammar teaching tip

Informal writing is a wonderful tool for finding what students misunderstood when you (or their second grade teachers) were teaching grammar.

Students can get through multiple choice exams without understanding grammar, but they can't write about grammar without understanding it.

Have students write what they understand a rule to mean and give an example. Or have them write a procedure for testing to see if they correctly applied the rule.