Maybe sometime over the next month, you’ll find yourself coming home with a BIG stack of papers, finding a comfortable chair, whipping out your red (or purple or green) pen, and correcting the conventional errors you find. Not a pleasant task (most would agree), but essential—right? Actually, no. Not only is the correction of errors non-essential, it’s ineffective—and may actually keep your students from becoming the editors they could be. What??!! How can something so time consuming, labor intensive, and downright tedious have a negative effect? Isn’t that against the laws of the universe?


Let’s take a closer look at what really happens when we over-correct:

1. Students feel overwhelmed. It’s too much to process. I mentioned at the close of our last post a note from a colleague who saw students pitch their corrected work into the trash as they left class. We shouldn’t be surprised. Think about it. If you invited a relative for dinner and he/she left you a note suggesting ways to improve your housekeeping and cooking, what would you do?

2. Students learn little if anything from corrections. Correcting is not teaching, despite the extreme effort it requires. A diligent student who receives only one or two suggestions regarding conventions may pay attention and incorporate new ideas into his or her editing repertoire. But this student is the exception. Most students skim over corrections, ignore them totally, or simply fail to understand what all those cryptic marks and crazy abbreviations mean. After all, if marginal notes were all it took to explain difficult concepts, think how easy calculus and physics would be!

3. Excessive focus on conventions teaches students that conventions matter more than ideas, more than a thesis or detail or proof, more than organizational structure or wording or voice. Is this the message we want to send?

4. We (the editors) wind up exhausted. Being an editor for 30 to 180 people takes hours . . . and hours. It’s also bad for your disposition. “We just talked about this!” sounds the nagging voice in your head. And no doubt you did. But even if you talk about it every day from now until the end of time, it probably won’t make much difference because . . .

5. If you do the editing, students will never become editors. Not ever. That in itself should be enough to make you put down that red pen. In the end, which do you care about more? Perfect papers? Or strong editors? You must choose. Think of it this way. If you’ve ever had kids (well, typical kids—some really ARE neat, and no one knows why), you know that once you cave in and clean that room, that becomes your chore forever. Why? Because the child knows you will do it. You can nag, explain, cajole, plead, threaten, and bribe. But kids are resilient and smart; they know when they’re stronger than you are. They can sense when you care more about neatness per se than about turning them into neatniks. Writers (even young ones) depend on editors the same way.


So then, if you’re not going to give up your precious weekends to make marks no one will read on papers no one will publish, what should you do? Here are 8 suggestions that really DO work:

Suggestion 1
Show that conventions matter to YOU. Wait. Isn’t this obvious? No, actually—it’s not. In case you’ve not noticed, America is not exactly having a love affair with conventional correctness. We’re only mildly interested unless a test is involved. Check out the local newscast. Look closely at the ticker on your television screen. Scrutinize your local newspaper or a current novel. I daresay you’ll spot (or hear) an error in grammar, spelling, or punctuation almost instantly. I recently downloaded a best-selling e-book onto my Kindle (I won’t repeat the title because it’s extremely well known.) I quickly became more fascinated with the number of errors in the text than with the plot (which was laughably implausible, to say the least) and found myself reading mostly for the fun of counting errors. By the time I’d finished the book, I’d counted well over 70, and would have found more had I not been skimming. Show your students that conventions matter, using a sample of your own writing—a business letter, for example. If you don’t have one underway, draft a short complimentary letter to a local business. Share it aloud with students as you project it on a screen, telling them, “I want this to be error free so it makes a good impression. Will you help me check it?” Real-world examples are always the best, and we ONLY learn when we are the editors. It’s much harder to learn when you are always the one being corrected.

Suggestion 2
Use real-world examples. Mistakes abound—so start right today collecting them and sharing them with students. Nothing develops an editor’s eye quicker than looking for mistakes in someone else’s work. Why should you have all the fun? Get your kids in on this. Here are a few I collected, mainly from newscasts but from other sources as well—they’re all mistakes made by educated adult professionals:
1. You are right we can tell the difference.

2. The use of cameras in the theater are forbidden.

3. The high school team was successfuller last night. [NO. NOT MAKING THIS UP.]

4. The outcome of events in Egypt, which will affect numerous people, are hard to predict.

5. We need to eat good.

6. No one wants this more than me.

7. Him and others in Congress are still in disagreement.

8. We are seeing less shoppers at the mall this week.

9. Being really salty, I couldn’t eat the soup.

10. Her and her sister were later interviewed by police.

Share one such “needs work” example each day—two or three if time permits. Then ask your students, “Does your current piece of writing contain this type of error? Have a look right now while it’s clear in your mind.”

Suggestion 3
Identify problems in students’ current writing. Why spend time on capitals if everyone has this nailed? Focus on trouble spots. As you review students’ work, pull out a sentence (or more than one) that seems representative of problems several or more students are having—subject-verb agreement, wrong pronoun, dangling modifiers, wrong word, and so forth. Here are a few I saved from various students’ work—and then shared for editing with other students (who loved revising them):

1. Being gone, I knew the music wasn’t coming from the neighbors.

2. Me and my friend Harlan were going to float the river.

3. She had short brownish blonde hair and her bangs hung over her eyes, which were a bright yellow color from when she had dyed them.

4. She lives at the resistance of Ron and Joanne.

5. I enjoy writing S. A.s.

6. “Up and Adams,” he whispered.

7. I believe in youth and Asia.

8. Space. It’s the finnel fruter. [This one helps students understand why conventions matter.]

9. She coulden’t even spell “culdn’t.” Her spelling was abyzmall.

10. I am proud to be among the on-a-roll students.

Share sentences like these on the board, letting students know you plan to do this. Ask if anyone sees a problem and if so, what should be done to fix it. (Often, there are several possible revisions, and you may want to discuss more than one.) When I did this with my own students, I never identified the writer, but I discovered early on that students actually liked having me use sentences from their writing, and it wasn’t unusual to hear someone say, “That’s from my paper!” as if it were a badge of honor to be chosen for the daily editing workout.

Suggestion 4
Develop your own focused editing lessons. That way, you can zero in on one sort of problem at a time—such as subject-verb agreement. Each lesson should include two parts. The first is instruction in the concept: e.g., What IS subject-verb agreement, and what does it look like when it’s done right? Provide several examples:
Choose one: Events in Egypt is/are hard to predict. (are, Events are . . . )
Choose one: The outcome of events in Egypt is/are hard to predict. (is, The outcome is . . . )
Next, provide students with a short text containing 3 or more errors of the type you’re focusing on. Have them
1. Edit independently,
2. Check with a partner,
3. Coach you as you go through the text, identifying and correcting errors.
Sources for lessons: By the way, ready-to-go editing lessons ARE available (Check the end of this post), or you can write your own—from scratch, or based on newspaper articles, online articles, junk mail, or other everyday print sources. Keep them short: 30 words for young students, 50 or so for middle schoolers, about 100+ for high school students.

Suggestion 5
Check out how the pro’s use conventions. One of the best ways to teach conventions is the same way we teach voice, ideas, fluency, word choice, and organization: through literary examples.
Here are just a few that caught my eye. Note that before you point out what you’ve noticed, you’ll want to ask students to tell you what they notice about each example. And once you’ve shared a few, you’ll want students hunting for their own. Have them hunt with partners. You’ll be surprised by how much your students actually enjoy conventions with this activity.

• No one uses dashes with more grace than Neal Shusterman, as in this example from The Schwa Was Here (Penguin, 2004, p. 37): “His hair was kinda ashen blond—real wispy, like if you held a magnetized balloon over his head, all his hair would stand on end.” What to notice: A dash can work like a pointing finger, indicating a thought you don’t want the reader to miss.

• In Peter and the Starcatchers (a delightful, voice-filled novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson), the character Tubby Ted is eager to dive into some pirate soup—until he makes a gruesome discovery and lets out a yell: “IT’S ALIVE!” (Hyperion, 2006, p. 38). What to notice: FULL CAPITALS are great for expressing anger, alarm, or fear.

• In Mockingbird, author Kathryn Erskine uses conventions in extraordinary ways to show how Caitlin, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, responds to the world: “I don’t like very outgoing. Or efFUSive. Or EXtroverted. Or greGARious. Or any of those words that mean their loudness fills up my ears and hurts and their face and waving arms invade my Personal Space and their constant talking sucks all the air out of the room until I think I’m going to choke” (Philomel, 2010, p. 44). What to notice: Creative use of italics and unexpected capitals helps us get inside Caitlin’s head.

• The humble hyphen is useful in two-part words (like that one) or for splitting multi-syllable words at the end of a line. But perhaps it has more creative uses, as in this passage from Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool—in which one of the main characters, Jack, is wondering just how strange his new acquaintance Early Auden might be: “Was he straitjacket strange or just go-off-by-yourself-at-recess-and-put-bugs-in-your-nose strange?” (Delacorte, 2013, p. 28). What to notice: Hyphens can help a writer create unique adjectives that put some pretty vivid images in readers’ minds.

• Stephen Hawking opens his book A Brief History of Time with an outstanding example of how to use parentheses: “A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy” (Bantam, 1996, p. 1). What to notice: I like to tell students that parentheses are like the cupped hands a person might make when whispering a secret to someone. Parenthetical comments are like that.

• In his brilliant book Oh, Rats! author Albert Marrin offers some classic examples of how to use the semicolon. Here’s one of them: “A rat is not finicky about its food; it will eat anything that will not eat it first” (Penguin, 2006, p. 13). What to notice: This sentence is made up of two small sentences (clauses) that are closely connected. They depend on each other for meaning, like people holding hands on a slippery slope depend on each other for balance. The semicolon connects sentences just as the joining of hands connects people.

• In The Good, Good Pig, author Sy Montgomery uses semicolons in a totally different way [Christopher, by the way, is a pig]: “We lined up to face the camera in ascending seniority: Christopher, age one; me, thirty-three; Liz, sixty; Lorna, ninety-three” (Random House, 2007, p. 64). What to notice: Semicolons provide a nifty way to handle a complex series in which too many commas could create confusion.

• In this passage from Hatchet (20th Anniversary Edition) by Gary Paulsen, the hero Brian (who is beyond hungry), is watching a kingfisher go after a meal. Think about how the ellipses at the very end affect you: “Of course, he thought. There were fish in the lake and they were food. And if a bird could do it . . .” (Simon & Schuster, 2007, p. 108). What to notice: The ellipses give us time to enjoy the same aha moment Brian is experiencing, to fill in the blank, as it were: If a bird can do it . . . maybe I can, too.

As you and your students collect moments that capture your attention, you’ll discover that conventions are not all (or even mostly) about rules. They’re tools that allow us to express both meaning and voice.

Suggestion 6
Wait 3 days to edit. Almost no one (including skilled, experienced editors) can do his or her best editing immediately after writing. That’s because the message we wanted to put on the paper, meant to put on the paper, is fixed in our minds—and we tend to “read” what’s in our heads, not what’s on the page. Allowing time after drafting creates perspective so that we see our work more the way an objective, critical reader would see it. Then we’re prepared to edit with the same zest we’d use in reviewing someone else’s work.

Suggestion 7
Encourage students to edit with their ears, not just their eyes. Do your students read everything they write aloud? If not, this is a good habit to instill—the sooner the better. Reading aloud slows us down, increasing the likelihood we’ll spot problems. It’s also harder to skip right over repeated or missing words (and similar errors) when reading aloud.

Suggestion 8
Keep it real. Students for whom editing does not come easily may feel very nervous about writing five pages if they anticipate having to edit every line. While I am a huge advocate of making students responsible for their own editing, I also agree that we need to find ways to make the task manageable for students who dread it. After all, we want them to write more, not less.

You can ask a struggling writer to edit just the first paragraph or two with extreme care—then give more of a once-over to the remainder. (The amount the student edits meticulously can and should expand with time.) A similar approach is to ask the student to look only for particular kinds of errors—preferably those you have already focused on in your editing lessons or demos.

Many students benefit from having a teacher mark (with a check, star, etc.) those lines in which errors appear (some teachers use a number to show how many errors a given line contains). No need to mark every line. Use your judgment in determining how much the student can handle—and think about which errors should receive priority.

A 3-minute conventions conference can be helpful, too. Focus on the one or two errors you think deserve the most attention. Have the student correct one example as you coach, then attempt to find one or more similar errors on his or her own.

For students who wrestle with spelling (for many, this is the most significant problem and the source of most errors), provide a mini dictionary on a large Post-It® note, and attach it right to the first page of the rough. In addition, keep a running list of frequently misspelled words for your students (a list that’s personal for your class), and post it where everyone can see as they write.
And of course, provide access to dictionaries, thesauruses, and other materials writers and editors use in the real world.

And finally . . .
Get a good handbook. No one ever masters conventions. There’s far too much to learn, and English conventions are constantly changing. You need an “authority” for your classroom, a book to turn to when you cannot answer that question about commas or citing sources. For the basics, consider—

The Chicago Style Manual (the most respected source out there—and most complete by far)
MLA Handbook, 7th edition (some portions are also available online)
The Write Source College Handbook by Dave Kemper and Patrick Sebranek (other grade-specific handbooks are available from these authors, but I happen to prefer the college edition, even for younger students)

When a question arises, have one of your students search for the answer, even if this takes a little time.
The following supplementary resources are extremely entertaining and will let your students in on the little known fact that conventions have a humorous side:
Words Fail Me and Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner
Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark
Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

Don’t forget to celebrate! When students do something that is conventionally correct or (better still) creative, celebrate! That’s the ideal time to make a mark on the paper—and share the example with the class, too. Expand everyone’s thinking about what conventions can do and be. 012

Notice content and voice first. After all, what’s the point of editing if no one is listening to your message?

Look beyond writing. What conventions are important in math, for example? How about music? Physics? Chemistry? Do you have any bilingual students in your class? They may be willing to share conventions from another language and talk about how they differ from those in English.

Discuss conventional evolution with your students. There’s nothing stagnant about English; it’s dynamic and changes hourly! Split infinitives? Commonplace! They actually precede Shakespeare (who is reported to have used a few). Dickens apparently favored sentences that began with “And” or “But” (Good news for me since I like them, too). Snuck is becoming an accepted form of sneaked (though not in all circles, admittedly). Words like dis, acquihire, creds, bling, tech-savvy, binge-watch, air punch, amazeballs, subtweet, listicle, bikeable, Paleo diet, hot mess, humblebrag, and side-eye weren’t even words (at least not in the modern sense) until recently, but they’re finding their way into Webster’s. For numerous other examples of English on the move, check out the fascinating Origins of the Specious by Patricia T. O’Conner, a brilliantly researched and very funny book you will enjoy sharing (one selected passage at a time) with your students. Then talk about which conventions will last (Is the semicolon doomed? Are dashes enjoying a renaissance?), and why our amazing (or should I say amazeballs) language is ever-evolving—and expanding.

Looking for editing lessons?
These resources were designed with YOU, the classroom teacher, in mind . . .

The Write Traits Classroom Kits ©2010 by Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks. These NEW edition kits are closely aligned with the Common Core Standards, and feature ready-to-go lessons that will make teaching conventions & presentation a breeze. Students love these lessons—you will, too. The kits are available for grades K through 8. To order or preview copies, please go to the following web address:
http://www.hmheducation.com/write-traits/. Here you can preview the kits (through 13 videos featuring Jeff and Vicki), download a comprehensive brochure, download articles on assessment, writing process or the Common Core, or order grade specific kits (Just go to the Home page, and click on the red order button.) Note: For the closest connection to the Common Core, be sure that your search takes you to the NEW Houghton Mifflin Harcourt home page for the kits, featuring our revised, Common Core aligned 2010 edition.

Creating Writers, 6th edition, by Vicki Spandel. This newly released edition will help you teach conventions with confidence and flair. It includes numerous lesson ideas, recommended handbooks, and other resources to help you bring conventions and presentation to life in your classroom. Connections to the Common Core Standards included. Find it at http://www.pearsonhighered.com/Spandel6e

Coming up on Gurus . . .
I will be reviewing Vince Vawter’s novel Paperboy, the story of an exceptional eleven-year-old who struggles with stuttering. Jeff will share reviews of his own, together with some lessons learned through his recent experience working with fifth graders. And down the road (once it’s released), we’ll take a close-up look at Sneed Collard’s wonderful new nonfiction piece titled Firebirds. Thank you for stopping by, and as always, we hope you will come often and bring friends. Please remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. Meantime . . . Give every child a voice.