A Dialogue between Readers and Writers: What We Can Learn from Second Language Writers
What comes to mind when you consider the phrase "responding to writing"? I think about responding as a dialogue between readers and writers. When I respond to writing, I hope to offer comments that enable writers to achieve their goals—communicate their ideas—as though my response will help with a revision or with the next piece the writer works on. My background in applied linguistics makes me particularly aware of the linguistic challenges involved in a dialogue between people whose native languages are different. Consequently, when I respond to the writing of non-native English writers, I pause to consider what message I am giving and how I am expressing it; I want my responses to these writers, as part of the dialogue, to be accessible despite our linguistic differences. Of course, since I want my response to all writers to be accessible and useful, I appreciate the standard my non-native English speaking students hold me to. Consequently, I am reminded to:
Responses to writing must be decipherable. Because even the clearest American-style handwriting can be a puzzle to people from other countries, I favor typing responses, even sending them via email, to enhance their impact.
Beyond legibility, clarity comes from using words chosen carefully with the writer in mind. I avoid glib phrases, slang, idioms, and abbreviations, all potentially confusing.
Limiting responses to two or three main points may help writers revise more effectively than a barrage of commentary in the margins and/or at the end of a piece. Sometimes, before I read a piece, I ask writers what aspect of a piece they would like reactions to.
Ideally, comments on a draft promote re-thinking and revising of organization and content. But even if a text is in final form, comments can lead to discoveries about writing, rather than first aid for a single text. For example, I ask questions about organization or focus if the writer's intentions are not apparent to me.
Writers sharpen their beliefs as well as their identities as writers while simultaneously wrestling with language and conventions. To avoid unwittingly taking over a writer's piece, I resist the temptation to change content or re-word sentences.
Drawing attention to only one or two of the prevailing grammatical errors (i.e., verb tense, vocabulary, word forms, prepositions, articles), mechanical errors (i.e., formatting, spelling, citation conventions), or punctuation (i.e., commas, capitalization) can provide writers with a focus for learning more. I favor simply underlining a word or phrase that needs correction rather than using one of the myriad systems of codes (vt, cs, pl, punc, etc.), indecipherable to many. Underlining one or two error types provides a data set for writers, giving them something to investigate, sort, categorize, systematize, and learn from. In effect, I want to create an awareness of those errors which interfere with the writer's intended meaning or errors appearing so frequently they distract readers.
How do I know if my comments have been useful? I look for evidence. For example, a writer can give me feedback orally or in writing. A revised draft shows me how a piece has evolved. And reflecting on the evidence allows me to tailor the next set of responses.
Melinda Erickson, a College Writing Programs Lecturer and a Bay Area Writing Project Fellow, teaches composition, the grammar and vocabulary of academic writing, and composition pedagogy.
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