Writing Centers and Copy-Editing

a red pen laying on an edited paper.

Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay

Faculty and administrators at UT are extraordinarily supportive of the University Writing Center, something I attribute to the previous directors who set in place a good culture and set of processes. We get fan mail, financial support, and faculty who cheerfully run workshops for us. And our end-of-consultation and follow-up surveys show that students appreciate what we do—98% of 13k surveys say they love what we’re doing.

But what about that 2%?[1] And what if I include faculty who grump at me in meetings or email?

One really interesting complaint, that comes from faculty and students, is that we won’t “edit” student writing. And what they mean by “edit” is go through a paper and write in the “correct” version of every “error” (what is more accurately called “copy-editing.”[2] These people (again, less than two percent of our visitors) want the Writing Center to be, not just directive, but red-pen editors. And they want it because they care about writing, but they care in different ways:

  • They just want someone to edit their writing because editing is hard.

  • Some people believe that editing (or “writing” as they call it) is a specialized skill set they don’t need to acquire—knowing the correct rules of grammar is a kind of knowledge unrelated to (and less important than) content knowledge.

  • They think sentence-level correctness is important, and easy to convey.

  • They think careful attention to sentence-level decisions is important, and they can point to a time when someone harshly editing their writing opened a new world.

  • They want to read error-free writing.

I appreciate that these people want the UWC to do something that they think will make writing better.

What they don’t understand is that there is a field of research on writing center practices and, in fact, on directive vs. non-directive methods of commenting. There is also a long history of practice. People in writing centers want to improve students writing—it’s our mission, passion, and reason for going to work. If red-pen copy-editing of consultees’ work resulted in students being better writers, we’d do it. We don’t because experience and research show that, despite it seeming like the obviously right choice, it doesn’t really help most students.

When I was hired at the Berkeley Writing Center, in the late 70s, there was no training. They hired people who wrote good papers with no grammatical errors, and we met once a week for the first year or so to talk about what was happening in our consultations.

I thought my job was telling people how to change their papers, so I did. That’s what most of us did, and no one told us not to. But, quickly, I learned that wasn’t useful. A good teacher who is giving sensible writing assignments gives a lot of information in class about his/her expectations, about the discipline, about the assignment, and I hadn’t heard any of that. I didn’t actually know what the consultee should do.

And that’s what was happening across writing centers in that era—writing centers learned that consultants shouldn’t evaluate because consultants don’t know the criteria by which a faculty member will evaluate. We shouldn’t pretend to knowledge we don’t have. That’s why writing centers are non-evaluative—because no one should evaluate the papers of a class who hasn’t been intimately involved with the class.

Well, okay, but why not correct all the commas?  Well, first off, because rules about commas aren’t all that clear—these are rhetorical as much as correctness choices. And, oddly enough, that applies to a lot of “rules” that people think are grammatical, but are stylistic, and vary from one discipline to another (passive voice, bundling nouns as though they’re adjectives, comma splice, use of second person, modifying errors that result from passive agency).

And a lot of “errors” aren’t easily corrected errors of “grammar” but signals of muddled thinking. Errors in predication, mixed construction, reference, modifying, parallelism, metaphors us, and even style choices such as whether to use passive voice/agency often can only be corrected by reconsidering an argument. We can’t just “edit” or “correct” a paper because shifting correcting mixed construction is a cognitive, not grammatical, choice.

In addition to all that, we shouldn’t just rewrite student papers for them because we’re a teaching unit. Except for the rare people who become professors, and even not for them until the moment they are engaged in a discipline, most writers don’t learn much about writing by having someone else go through a paper and correct errors.

We think that red-penning a paper is a good strategy because we can often look back and remember some very dramatic moment when we benefitted from having a paper red-penned. We got it back, looked it over, and tried to figure out what all the marks meant, and how they made the paper better. We learned. We assume it would help all students (as a colleague said, a certain amount of narcissism is probably necessary for success in academia)—that’s what initially made me mark up consultees’ papers. But we aren’t like most students. That moment was generally one when an expert in the field (thus, someone with considerable expert authority) helped us learn discipline-specific discourse (such as graduate school) at a moment we wanted to learn that discourse. I appreciate the faculty who red-penned my work, and I applaud others who do that for students who are at a moment when that is useful information.

The writing center is not that moment. You are that moment, and only for some of your students.

Writers who are anxious to learn the conventions of a field are often appreciative of directive advice as to how we’re not meeting those expectations, and faculty are always people who were that kind of student. We forget that we were atypical. So, yes, red-penning the work of a fairly advanced and very promising student who wants to be an academic can be profoundly useful. But, to be blunt, that is not the job of the UWC because we don’t know who is and is not very promising in a field. Our job is to teach. Not direct.

And most students don’t benefit from that kind of red-penning—they don’t look again at the corrections; they just make them.

As I tell students in my class when I explain why I don’t edit their first submissions, I’m not going through life with them editing their papers. I need to teach them to edit their own papers. If I teach them to rely on me to correct their papers, I’ve done them a disservice. The UWC doesn’t help students be better writers if we copy-edit their papers. Our mission isn’t helping students turn in better papers; it’s helping students be better writers.

[1] In UWC exit surveys, this is less than 2%. It’s a higher percentage of faculty who email or call me, since I don’t get 97 calls or emails about how what we do is great, but it’s still a very small number of calls. Still and all, all of the emails or calls are from people who really care about student writing, and I love that.

[2] “Correct” and “error” are in scare quotes because a lot of times it isn’t a grammar error, but a disciplinary or personal preference. People often assume that, if you don’t copy-edit, you don’t care about sentence-level correctness issues at all. We care about them very much, enough that we ensure that our consultants engage in practices that, unlike copy-editing, are likely to have long-term impact on student writing.

This post was originally published on Dr. Patricia Roberts-Miller’s blog on October 10, 2018 and is republished here with the author’s permission.

Trish Roberts-Miller

Patricia (Trish) Roberts-Miller is the director of the Undergraduate Writing Center at UT Austin. She has been a Professor in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing since 2000–previously she was faculty (and sometimes Director of Composition) at University of Missouri, and University of North Carolina-Greensboro. Her AB, MA, and Ph.D. are all from the Department of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley. Author of four books, Voices in the Wilderness: The Paradox of the Puritan Public Sphere (1999), Deliberate Conflict: Argument, Political Theory, and Composition (2004), Fanatical Schemes: Proslavery Rhetoric and the Tragedy of Consensus (2009), and The Pleasures and Perils of Demagoguery (under contract, expected publication 2015), her main scholarly interest is the way that communities talk themselves into disastrously bad decisions (aka “train wrecks in public deliberation”). Also at work on a book manuscript on the craft of scholarly writing (under review at U of Alabama Press), she teaches classes and workshops on writing processes, procrastination, time management, and scholarly genres.