Grading, correcting, and mentoring writing: learning on both sides

I’ve been working on writing with grad students, and other early-career writers, for a startlingly long time now. It’s the usual way for scientific writers to learn their craft: the more junior writer produces drafts, and the more senior writer receives and comments on them.  But the process isn’t as simple as I used to think.  Instead, there’s a developmental sequence that both parties go through – junior and senior – and I think it’s useful for each to think explicitly about this sequence: about their own position in it, and the opposite party’s.  This is the sequence I have in mind: from grading writing, to correcting writing, to mentoring a writer.

Let’s work with a simplified cartoon of this.  Imagine that my brand-new (and fictional) grad student Jane has given me a draft of a manuscript about biological control of citrus scale insect.  Throughout, she’s spelled “lemon” with a double m.* I notice this.  What Jane and I each do next, and what we each expect from the other, depends on where each of us is along that the sequence.  When we don’t understand this, frustration ensues.

First, grading writing.  From her undergraduate days, Jane may be used to handing in a paper, and getting it back to find “lemmon” circled in red, probably with the notation “sp” in the margin. She sighs and skips through to see her grade at the end, but with eighteen other assignments pending and no chance to resubmit this one, that’s likely all she does.  And while this is primarily a student-centred perspective, an inexperienced advisor used to grading assignments just might begin similarly with their first grad student’s first piece of writing.**

Second, correcting writing. A more assiduous grader might have corrected “lemmon” to “lemon” rather than merely marking “sp”.  Early in my own career, I thought what I needed to do with a piece of student writing was correct it – that is, find errors and rough spots in the writing, and fix them.  So I’d receive a draft, turn on Track Changes, and fix spelling errors, improve punctuation, move sentences around, and so on.  If I do this for Jane, she can receive my Track Changes version, reject anything she finds particularly ill-advised, and end up rather easily with an improved draft, with all her lemons spelled correctly. But this isn’t really where I want Jane and me to be.

Third, mentoring a writer.  I’ve come to understand that both my goal and Jane’s isn’t really for the word “lemon” to be spelled correctly in her manuscript. Instead, it’s for Jane to learn to spell “lemon” correctly for the rest of her career. I really shouldn’t address this by correcting “lemmon” each time it appears. Rather, I should make a marginal comment at the first appearance along the lines of “Only one ‘m’ in ‘lemon’, Jane – please fix throughout and add to your list of writerly quirks!”.

That change in focus, from the piece of writing in front of us to the writer’s developing craft, is the key transition; and crucially, it’s a key transition for both parties. Confusion about this leads to irritation.  For example, you could think of the second stage in the sequence as “editing”, but I find it useful to call it “correcting” instead to emphasize a common point of friction. I discovered – and you probably have too – that correcting works just fine with Jane’s current draft – but when I’d get her next draft, it would be sprinkled with lemmons again.  Why, I’d groan, hasn’t Jane learned how to spell “lemon”?  I told her once!  And of course Jane could have taken my correction of “lemmon” as a spur to learn, forever, how to spell “lemon”.  But it’s understandable if she didn’t. It’s awfully easy to accept an edit – especially with Track Changes, which will accept an edit with one click and with no need for the writer to advance their craft. When I changed “lemmon” to “lemon”, Jane saw what I’d done as correcting her writing; but I thought I was mentoring her as a writer.  We didn’t understand each other’s places in the developmental sequence!  And it’s easy for me to blame Jane – who really should, as a grad student, be taking responsibility for her own development as a writer – but it’s just as fair to blame me, because just making corrections doesn’t communicate my intent to mentor.

How does any of this help?  Well, to start with what’s obvious: if you’re an early-career writer, please broaden your focus from the piece of text in front of you.  Your advisor/mentor/senior colleague wants you to spell “lemon” correctly for the rest of your career, and the next two-ems “lemmon” draft will make them quite cranky.  And if you’re an advisor/mentor/senior colleague, please signal your intent to mentor the writer rather than correct the writing.

We can do even better, though.  I think it’s worth having an explicit discussion between the early-career writer and the more senior person who will be receiving drafts. What stage are you each at in the developmental sequence?  How will you both get to the mentoring-the-writer stage?  And how will you choose and use editing or commenting tools to serve that stage?

Perhaps reading this post together might help. I’d be pleased if it did.  And now, it you’ll excuse me, I’m going to hop in my time machine and explain all this to brand-new-professor Steve, 25 years ago.  Be right back.

© Stephen Heard  August 25, 2020

This older post is closely related, but I think missed a chance to make the both-sides-are-learning structure evident there.

Image: Correcting writing © Phoebe CC BY-SA 3.0 via

*^No doubt because she’s a fan of Jack Lemmon’s work in The Odd Couple. Or perhaps or Sara Plummer Lemmon’s work in Marine Algae of the West.

**^I’m not saying I was ever this green.  But I’m also not saying that I wasn’t.


12 thoughts on “Grading, correcting, and mentoring writing: learning on both sides

  1. herbariociidir

    Thank you for reminding me that our work with students should focus in mentoring.
    Your example applies to all the assignments.


  2. Rafael Pinheiro

    “It’s awfully easy to accept an edit – especially with Track Changes, which will accept an edit with one click and with no need for the writer to advance their craft.”

    That’s why I never just accept or reject edits in Track Changes. I always open a new version of the manuscript, side by side with the edited one, and manually modify it. That way I can be sure that I understood the reasons of each modification and, even more important, that I agree with it.

    It takes a much longer time and effort, but in the end, I think it’s worth it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Marco Mello

    Very nice advice! Thanks for sharing your ideas. By the way, this advice applies also to coding. When editing a student’s code using Git or any other VCS, take the time to comment on recurring issues. And always give informative names to your commits.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yeah, totally agree, Josh. It’s *easier* just to fix things – at least, the first time. With sufficient future cowriting, the investment should pay off (if you want to think of it that way). When it doesn’t, it’s part of a mentorship time budget, right?


  4. SB

    Very helpful post! I have experienced lemmons myself. Jane does not get their subject and verb to agree when they write. But, they get it right when they speak (most times). Makes working on drafts so much harder. Sometimes I can’t really focus on the science in these drafts because I am too caught up fighting lemmons instead.


  5. umtassio

    Thank you for this insightful piece! I am for the first time writing with people who have less experience. Having just a little experience myself, I feel cornered between trying to share good practices and fearing that bad habits of mine will get picked.


  6. Pingback: Exciting news: I’m (co-)writing another book! | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  7. Pingback: Exciting news: I’m (co-)writing a book! – Bethann Garramon Merkle, MFA

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