If I were to stand in front of class with a giant green thing stuck between my teeth, it wouldn't matter if were the wisest teacher in the world giving my students an insight that would change their lives, they wouldn't hear a thing. The first thing they would say to each other when they burst into the hall after class is “Did you see that big green thing stuck between her teeth? Do you think she knows it’s there? That was so gross!”
Students unanimously agree when I pose this hypothetical story on the first editing day of the year.
Writing is like that, too. If your writing has misspelled words, lower case “i” pronouns, and punctuation errors, it doesn’t mean you are not intelligent and don’t have important insights to share. But it does mean people will be so distracted by the surface that they won’t be able to hear those important insights. Editing is simply hygiene for your writing--brushing its teeth, washing its face, combing its hair, and putting on its deodorant so that nothing will cause people to judge your ideas before they’ve really heard them.
If that’s what editing is, then editing tools are the toothbrush, washcloth, comb, and deodorant. Here’s the tools I introduced this Thursday:
- Familiarity with the grammar-checking capabilities of your word processing program. It is just a dumb machine, and you are smarter than it, but at least start with hearing what it has to say--then you can decide whether its advice is correct or not. My students’ Apple laptops come with Pages installed. Most knew the green underline meant a grammar error, but they didn’t know how to find out what the machine thought was wrong with the underlined words. No wonder I get electronic papers from good students where I just repeat the computer comment on underlined words. Redundant...Passive... Now you can find out yourself: Hover your cursor over the words in question, and the computer’s complaint pops up.
- Instruction in creating an MLA template, complete with correct page size (that’s A4 here in Japan), running page numbers, header, centered title, double spacing, and automatic paragraph indentation. (On the “work-smarter-not-harder” principle.)
- Mandatory bookmarking of the OWL Purdue MLA Formatting and Style Guide page. (On the “give-a-man-a-fish” principle.)
- Practice in reading like a writer. This week we pulled out the literature piece we had just read, inductively reviewed the rules for punctuating direct quotation, then checked the paper for them.
- Tips for careful proofreading: To force yourself to see what’s on the paper (rather than what you know you meant to say)--read out loud, read with another piece of paper under each line, and get someone else to read it.
And there’s one more tool: a sense of humor. That’s why I wore my editing t-shirt, which reads as follows:
Let’s eat Grandma.
Let’s eat, Grandma.
Commas save lives.
But a sense of humor isn’t only an editing tool--it’s a life tool--don't just save it for editing day.