The key to teaching self-editing

Lazy feetI’m sure it’s no secret that your kids don’t like to edit their compositions. Unfortunately, by not editing their own papers thoroughly, they place themselves in a “Catch-22” position; that is, though too lazy to edit their own work carefully, they fall apart when they see all the changes you suggest! Sound familiar?

This is how they think:

I don’t like editing. It takes too much time. Besides, I like my paper just the way it is. It sounds good to me. Anyway, if I don’t proofread, Mom will find my mistakes. Why go to all that time and trouble to find mistakes and (perish the thought!) correct them when someone else will do it for me?

However, when their parent-edited composition comes back, they sing a different tune!

You’re always so critical! I can’t do anything right. My paper is too marked up. I thought my composition was fine. I didn’t see all that stuff when I read it!

Granted, not all students think this way. However, in our experience over our many years of teaching writing to nearly 200 students, we have learned that many, if not most, do become lazy as time goes on, self-editing less and relying on our comments and suggestions more.

Here’s how we began to think!

What’s with all the ‘to be’ verbs? She used six but only circled two. And she marked her checklist saying she didn’t use more than two. Hmm.

Wow! Look at all the weak words–very, really, had (twice), went (three times), and a lot. That’s odd–he marked off the box on his checklist saying he avoided weak words. I wonder why he didn’t underline them on his rough draft?

There’s no sentence beginning with a present participle, and I can’t find her simile. But she checked the box saying she used all required sentence variations.

Once upon a time, we used to find these errors for our students and suggest ways to fix them–and then we got smart! We began to realize that we were doing them no favor by spending an hour poring over each paragraph rather than requiring them to make greater editing efforts themselves.

Here’s the bottom line: put the responsibility back on your students to do their part in this learning process! When they turn in their self-edited draft to you, give it a cursory glance. If you find too many problems showing evidence of poor self-editing, return it for additional proofreading before editing it yourself.

Specifically, look for overused “to be” verbs (is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been), repeated or weak words, failure to use all required sentence variations, too many spelling errors, and failure to follow the assignment’s directions for content. If you find that even one of these areas has been neglected, send it back! You will teach students to improve their own editing abilities, and you will save yourself a great deal of time as a bonus!

Copyright 2008 © Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

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From the archives.

Writing with young children
Pottery Barn meets sentence variations


  • Posted December 16, 2008

    Deb W

    This is an area in which we have both struggled. Our dd is the reluctant copy editor and I’m the reluctant senior editor. Now we can both experience improvement in our skills by taking baby steps and just stepping into it. Thanks for the suggestions.

  • Posted December 16, 2008


    There’s a lot of wisdom in taking baby steps!

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