handbook: commenting on drafts

In order to prevent confusion and save time, it’s important to establish a clear system for collecting student papers. Ideally, you (or one of your co-fellows) will collect the papers from the professor once he or she has had a chance to check and make sure they are all present. This way, the professor can contact any student who hasn’t turned the paper in. The process for collecting papers should be negotiated with your professor at your first meeting with him/her.

Logistical Advice

Cover sheets

You should have your students fill out cover sheets to help guide your responses to their drafts. As their name implies, cover sheets are stapled to the front of the students’ drafts; they give you information about the writers and how they feel about their drafts.

Cover sheets can be very helpful as you’re reading drafts, but they require advance planning for both you and your students. You can visit the class ahead of time to distribute the sheets or drop them off and have the professor hand them out for you. Some Fellows choose to email cover sheets to students. Your students will need to fill the cover sheets out before they turn their drafts in, and will ideally take some time doing so. Cover sheets that are filled out in class two minutes before the students turn over the drafts to you tend to be hastily scrawled and lacking in useful information.

You can find a sample cover sheet in the appendix to this handbook or download a copy from the Writing Fellows website. This template is fairly generic, so you will likely want to personalize it by asking questions that reflect the specific course and genre requirements.

tip from a Fellow:

“In the cover sheet, I ask students to provide their favorite and least favorite parts of the paper, their thesis, what they struggled with or need help with, and other comments. To personalize, you have to be creative and pay attention to your professor’s particular quirks. Most professors have things they really care about, so emphasizing these in your questions on the cover sheet can be useful to your students.”

“Ask students if this is an example of their best writing. Then you’ll know the sensitivity level to use and the direction to go in when you write your endnotes.”

The care and feeding of your drafts

This advice may sound obvious, but once the drafts are in your hands, you must treat them with care. Take pains to avoid losing them, protect them from rain and mud, and keep them free from coffee or food stains.

Many fellows have found that it can be helpful, once they have finished writing marginal and end notes, to make a copy of each draft (you can accomplish this for free using the Writing Center copier whenever the Center is open; just ask the receptionist for the key). Two benefits of taking this extra step: first, you can review each student’s draft before conferencing, and second, if the student loses the original, you can come to the rescue with a copy.

What should I do about late or missing drafts?

No matter what paper exchange system you have, once in a while a student will not hand in a draft. Make sure that you know what to do in this case. Students must turn in the original draft and your comments along with the revised draft in order to receive a grade for each paper. Professors know if those things are missing, and it’s their job to decide whether missed drafts will affect the student’s grade. Discuss this policy with the professor, and be ready to explain it to students who are late or who want you to cover for them.

Keep in mind that whatever late paper policy you and the professor have established, you can exercise discretion. If a student is a day or two late with a draft and seems contrite and invested in meeting with you, you may decide to accept the draft. At the same time, you’re not required to do so, and you can certainly stipulate that you will return drafts the same number of days late that you received them.

Note: if a student contacts you saying that her draft will be late because of extenuating circumstances such as illness or family crisis, you should work with Emily and the class professor to make sure that the situation is handled fairly for both the student and you. If such a situation arises, contact Emily immediately.

Writing Comments

After you collect the drafts, you’re ready to start reading them and formulating comments. Be sure to treat every student’s draft with the same patience and attention that you would want your own writing to receive if you were the one turning in a paper to a Writing Fellow. Some drafts may strike you as extremely confused or hastily written, but they may in fact represent serious effort on the part of the writer. Although talking with the writer or reading the cover sheet might give you a good idea of how much time a student put into a draft, you can’t know for sure how much work went into any piece of writing you receive. Don’t rush to judgment.
A note about confidentiality
It’s important that you maintain a high level of accountability to your students. If you discuss individual students or papers with your roommates or friends, you violate the trust that is essential to your success as a fellow. However, it’s fine to raise questions about papers in 316 or discuss a puzzling or frustrating draft with your commenting mentor, co-Fellows, or the course professor.

General Guidelines

English 316 provides a chance both to study different theories about how to comment effectively on drafts and to practice writing comments. Here are some basic commenting principles supported by writing studies research, principles that reflect the Writing Fellows program’s general commenting philosophy:

  • Before you begin to comment, read all the drafts to get a sense of the representative ways of writing the paper.
  • Re-read each draft carefully before you write anything at all to avoid overwhelming writers with disjointed, rambling, or contradictory responses.
  • Remember to praise! Note the parts that work well in every paper you read. Often writers don’t recognize their own strengths, and if you can specifically point out some positive aspects of their writing, you will build trust, help them gain confidence and bolster their enthusiasm for the assignment. You may also be able to give them a model of, say, a well-structured paragraph that they can emulate as they revise a less-effective paragraph.
  • Be specific. In particular, try to avoid scrawling single words or short phrases in the margins; writing “confusing” or “great!” next to a paragraph often leaves writers wondering exactly what was so confusing or so great. “This sentence confuses me because it doesn’t seem to fit with the paragraph’s main topic” or “I couldn’t tell which character you were talking about” helps the writer figure out what needs to be changed; “This transition helped me understand the connection between these ideas” or “This paragraph follows through exactly on what the introduction promised” tells the writer not only what’s working but why it’s working and helps the writer understand how readers read.
  • Focus on endnotes rather than marginal notes. Marginal notes have their place, certainly, but they can also get you — and the writer — stuck on details instead of thinking about the big picture. Questions can be great marginal notes.
  • Prioritize. If you try to point out everything in the draft that could be improved, you’ll end up writing another paper on top of the one to which you’re responding, and you will also confuse the student. Keep in mind the professor’s priorities and especially the writers’ concerns as expressed on their cover sheets.
  • Keep a copy of your end comments to prepare for conferences. You can type them on a computer and print out two versions, one for you and one to return to the student with the draft. Or you can take notes on a 3 x 5 card to summarize your comments on each draft, so you will have an easily accessible short version of your comments to use during each conference.
  • Never try to rewrite papers for students. Your job is to ask questions, point out the strengths and weaknesses of papers, and make a limited number of focused suggestions for revision. You should not aim to help every student write the perfect paper. Definitions of the perfect paper vary from reader to reader, anyway. But even if everyone could agree on what constitutes perfection, guiding your peers down that mythical path would not be the sole focus of your work as a tutor. The Fellows program values collaborative learning and focuses on the process of writing, not just on the product.
    Every now and then you may encounter a student who needs more (or different) help with writing than you can provide. You’ll talk more about this situation in English 316, but here’s a short list of your options: proceed with caution; wait until you conference with the writer and get a better sense of his or her writing process; solicit a second opinion on the draft from Emily, Cydney, Brad, the undergraduate assistant directors, other Fellows assigned to the course, or the course professor; suggest that the student make an appointment in the Writing Center to get additional feedback; or suggest that the student set up a permanent appointment with someone in the Writing Center in order to have sustained, ongoing conversation about writing that covers assignments in multiple classes.

For sample comments, see the appendix.

Meeting(s) with Your Commenting Mentor

You will meet with Emily, Cydney, Brad, or an experienced Writing Center instructor during your first round of commenting to talk about strategies for helping your students. To prepare for this meeting, identify a couple of drafts that seem especially challenging to comment on. With your mentor, you will talk through questions you have and brainstorm ways to respond. New fellows will meet again with their commenting mentor during the second round of papers. Remember: it is your responsibility to schedule meetings with your mentor! Be sure to schedule these meetings for the week during which you are in the process of commenting, not before you begin or after you’ve handed the drafts back.