Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Peer Editing (or Teaching Kids To Fail) (an IWSG post)

Back around the beginning of December, my younger son had his first fiction writing assignment in his freshman English class. As I've mentioned before, my son is an excellent writer. He is so far beyond where I was at his age, there's no way to make a good comparison. The story he wrote is very good, and I will be making it available at some point. It was so good, in fact, that his teacher emailed me to let me know how good it is, so good that she caused a disruption during class while reading it. Because she was laughing her ass off.
[heh heh I said "ass."]

All of that is well and good. The issue came after they turned in the first draft. After the first draft came the peer editing process. I have never been fond of peer editing; my oldest had to do a lot of this when he was in high school, but he was the one that everyone wanted to edit their papers. [Do you see a trend here?] He would mention it every now and then, but it was never an issue for him. However, what happened with my younger son is an excellent example of why peer editing should never be used. Not in school and, well, not anywhere.

So my son wrote his story and turned it in, then it was passed through the hands of several of his classmates for editing. It came back with tons of corrections. I mean  the paper was all marked up. And this caused a problem.

See, my son was pretty sure he didn't have any errors, even though he hadn't given it to me to proof before he turned it in. His marked up paper filled him with doubt. It made him question what he knew.

He brought it home and gave it to me and told me, "I didn't think I had any mistakes but, now, I don't know."  He asked me some specific questions about punctuation, because more than one person had made the same comma "correction." One person accused him of using too many "run on" and "long" sentences, because, the person said, sentences should be short. I agreed to look the story over for him so that he would know which "corrections" to respond to.

As it turned out, the number of corrections he needed to respond to was... zero. ZERO. Every correction made to his story was incorrect. I told him to ignore them all and turn the final draft in exactly as it had been. His grade was 50/50 turning in the paper as it had been before his peers got a hold of it. His teacher wrote "flawless" along with the grade.

There are a few things here that need to be pointed out:
1. My son knew what he was doing. He knew he knew what he was doing. But, still, when his paper came back from his peers, it filled him with doubt about what he knew he knew. That's not a good thing. If my son, who is very competent, doubted himself, how do you think other students who are not very competent responded?
2. In relation to point 1, this kind of "editing" can cause students to unlearn things that are correct. It can convince them that they were incorrect about things which were actually correct and cause them to change to some incorrect method, like putting all the commas after the conjunction in a sentence rather than before it (a very common "correction" on my son's story).
3. Every time a student makes an incorrect "correction" on someone else's paper, it reinforces that incorrect behavior. Each time that student moves the comma to the wrong place, it ingrains that process just a little deeper. Kind of like muscle memory. It's much more difficult to re-learn something like that once you've been doing it a lot rather than just learning it correctly the first time. Don't give students a chance to reinforce bad grammar/punctuation habits; they make enough of those on their own.

The whole peer editing process being used in schools is a bad joke, and teachers should quit telling it.

I want to point out that the critique partner process is the same thing as peer editing. Almost always, the assertion, "I have great critique partners," means, "My peer editors add mistakes to my manuscript!" What makes me say this? Well, the fact that so many indie authors who use CPs to help them edit their books send their works out full of grammar and punctuation lice. Yeah, lice, because that's what it's like. One person's mistakes jumping over to some other person's manuscript because neither person is competent with grammar.

Sorry, it's just the truth.

More heads do NOT result in a better product. They result in a gradual degradation of your first product as you incorporate everyone else's mistakes into your manuscript. Basically, a grammar lice outbreak.

Look. I get it. Editing is tough. Good editing is even more tough, and it's difficult to find at a reasonable price. Beyond that, most of the editors out there aren't any better than having a CP. Too many of them are "editing" because they read a lot. Seriously. I have seen so many people (book bloggers, especially) who, because they find "mistakes" in the indie books they are reading, think that makes them qualified to be an editor. It does not.

So what do you do, then?

There's not really a good answer to that other than to find ONE person who is better at copy-editing than you and trust that one person with your manuscript. At least, that way, you only have the potential for one person's errors in your final product. Or, maybe, you'll find someone really good, and it will end up "flawless" like my son's short story. (If you want, I'll ask him if he's taking anyone, right now.)

Actually, ideally, you would set to work learning grammar and punctuation yourself and develop your own style with it that fits your writing. That's what's most important, especially if you're an indie author. Even if not all of the grammar and punctuation isn't technically correct, if the style fits you're writing, it doesn't matter.

can you imagine what it would be like if e e cummings had followed the rules?
his style was what defined him
however, i'm sure he knew the rules even though he didn't follow them
why do i know that?
because he broke the rule consistently in the same way

All of that to say:
Stop submitting your work to your "peers." By the definition of peers, these are people who are no more qualified than you to do the job that you are asking of them. Learn the rules for yourself, then you can know how and when to break them.

38 comments:

  1. I think peer editing will teach your son about life. In the real world we get bad advice from friends, relatives, and significant others all the time. Teachers and bosses can criticize our work - and they can be wrong. Learning to see the bad advice for what it is and dealing with it is important. But no one's perfect, so it's also good to recognize areas where one might lack knowledge and seek out input. Whether to take it or not is up to the individual. (Unless the bad advice comes from your boss, in which case you may not have a choice.)

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    1. Lexa: The problem with that idea is that it is an English class, not a life skills class. The students should be being taught the essentials of the English language, not reinforced in incorrect grammar usage. And it's not just his class; the middle school where my daughter is (and where my son went) is using peer editing more and more. I do work in the English classes there, and there is a big problem with this approach there. Peer editing is never a good choice as a teaching method.

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  2. I think a lot of authors here in the blogs expect CPs to correct their minor spelling/grammar errors so don't put much effort into self editing. I think getting feedback from peer authors is important; but a writer need to have the confidence to know what feedback to accept and what to ignore.

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    1. dolorah: Theoretically, we are expected to learn how to self-edit in school. That's what research papers, etc are for. In the past, authors were also expected to self-edit and to self-edit competently. Copy editors didn't come about to edit the author, per se, they were to make sure that the text worked for printing. My perspective is that it's an author's job to know -how- to write, which includes knowing grammar and punctuation rules.

      As for story content, I think more and more that getting feedback from other writers is the wrong place to be getting it.

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  3. I'm not sure how well-equipped kids are to handle giving or getting peer reviews. I wonder if some of those errors found were because the kids believed, "Hey, I'm being graded on this, I'd better find something." And the teacher hopefully explained somewhere along the line in the process that it was okay to ignore "corrections" and "suggestions." That said, part of the value of the process is in making a person look at their work again and THINK about it, think about word choices, sentence structure, punctuation, etc.

    Learning grammar, punctuation, and developing a style is important for EVERY writer, not just indies. What indies need to do is put the brakes on and not be so quick to hit the "Publish" button, while trade published authors need to spend a lot of time with galleys and proofs and all that stuff.

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    1. JeffO: Yes, developing your own style is important for every author. My point about it with indies, though, is that they very frequently dilute their style by taking in every bit of "advice" or "correction" from their CPs. Or whomever. Traditionally published authors have no choice in the process they go through, and their style is partially crafted by their publisher.

      And just to be clear, these weren't peer reviews. The students were not expected to make any comments about the stories or whether they liked them; they were just doing, basically, copy-editing.

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  4. As far as the kids, that's not a good idea because they aren't teachers. You're right, they'll come at it with their own wrong way of doing it.
    As far as critique partners though, if you select people above your skill level, then it's a good thing. And it still helps to have people catch the dumb mistakes and point out what didn't work. It doesn't ding my confidence any and I weigh each suggestion.
    Yes, I do have awesome critique partners, and because of them, my latest manuscript came back for editing from my publisher the least marked up out of all of them.

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    1. Alex C: It is always important to find people above your skill level; however, the problem there is, if they are all above your skill level and they are telling you conflicting things, you have no way of making an informed decision.

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  5. I love the parallel you've created between your son's peer editing experience and copy-editing. More hands aren't always better, as you've said, and we can all learn something from the fact that your son needed zero edits in the end.

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    1. randi: The research shows that more hands are almost always worse. The more people involved (in anything), the worse the final product ends up being.

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  6. Oh, I hated peer editing in school! For all of the reasons you described. And yes, I hear so much that a book passed through the hands of *emphatic arm motion* thiiiiiiis many people, only for me to find errors in a casual glance. :( It's a difficult conundrum though, because how do you know who you can trust for an editing job? (If you knew what was wrong with the MS, you wouldn't need an editor.)

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    1. Alex H: I am SO glad we didn't do peer editing when I was in school.

      It's difficult to know whom to trust. I think that can only come through experience with the other person. Or from very good references. That's why, though, each author should learn how to be reasonably competent.

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  7. Critique partner wise, this is soooooo true. I have a friend who changes anything/everything just because someone says it needs to be changed. And I cringe!!! What happens when you do that, is you end up with a story that is a jumbled mess and you have a book in your hands that isn't your heart at all. Fab points/post. :)

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    1. Morgan: I've known a lot of people like that. Basically, they have no confidence in their stories or in themselves and just assume that everyone else is more of an expert than they are. A book needs a vision not a committee.

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  8. It's good to teach kids how to edit but they shouldn't peer edit so young.

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    1. Pat: It's good to teach kids grammar and punctuation so that they can self-edit. That's really about it.

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  9. I agree with the learning the rules for yourself and where to break them, but I will disagree on the critiquing in the instance where your critiquers are grounded and regularly studying the art. Amazing critique partners will focus on story, arc, and other specific industry related aspects, not so much on the grammar. (Because they realize they're not line editors.) I think the best critiquing comes from at least a group of three, and paying attention to where their suggestions overlap. The rest is just mush.

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    1. Crystal: All of the great works of literature have been solo endeavors. No critique partners. Following the logic that CPs make books better, we should have even greater works of literature coming out since the advent of CPs; however, the greatest current novels are still the work of an author working alone.

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  10. My daughter went through the same thing with her peer editing. Her style was unique, she kept her sentences well structured but still, her classmates tore it apart bit by bit and that made her doubt herself. Unlike your son (Go him!!) She had legitimate corrections to make, but not nearly as many as were so kindly pointed out by her peers. (Complete with girly smiley faces all over the page haha)

    Take care,

    Elsie

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    1. Elsie: Oh, yeah, the smiley faces! How ever did people say "negative" things before smiley faces existed to soften the blow?

      I hope she can hold onto her style. A unique style can be hard to retain when people respond negatively, which people almost always do when something is different. At least, at first.

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  11. That's why there are professional editors. If teachers are going to have peer editing then they need to go back and analyze and discuss the editing, whether it was correctly done, and how it should have been done. If the editing isn't edited and corrected then there is a learning disruption.

    Beta reading should not be editing and in that context can be helpful. Then it's mostly a matter of opinion and objective party observation.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

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    1. Lee: Theoretically, beta readers and CPs are completely different things. Beta readers generally get a manuscript after it's been seen by CPs, and they are just there to say whether they like it or not. CPs are usually other writers while betas are usually just readers.

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  12. I hate that peer editing shit. It's a load of crap. All through public school, everyone wanted The Hurricane to edit their papers so she would make corrections for them. Because papers HAD to be edited and corrected, The Hurricane purposely put errors in her essays so she could correct them. Fortunately, when she went to a private prep school, that was the end of the peer editing crap. I've been telling authors that too many cooks spoil the soup. All these writing groups and critique partners cause writers to doubt themselves. This post is very good.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. Janie: See, something is wrong when you have to purposefully put in mistakes like it's some kind of Easter egg hunt.
      And it sucks to be the best person at something for any kind of group work in school. I HATED that. Everyone wanted to be in my group, then I ended up doing all the work.

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  13. I'm a big fan of peer editing, but I was never subjected to it until grad school. I think what the teacher should have done is taken the "corrected" papers so people who incorrectly corrected could learn that THEY were wrong and then students would have gotten back a paper that clearly had what should and should not have been corrected. My best class on the matter did exactly that--we got graded on our paper (final draft) and also on the feedback we gave two peers on THEIR papers.

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    1. Hart: Yeah, that almost never happens, not in the public school system. Maybe if there were enough teachers so that individual teachers actually had classes of manageable sizes... Yeah, that's not ever going to happen.
      But, anyway...
      Yes, if the students were being graded on their ability to correctly edit the other papers, that would change things, because, then, it would actually be a learning exercise.

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  14. While I don't agree with peer editing in school (luckily, I never had to do that), I do appreciate my critique partners. None of them are correcting my grammar, though. Each one brings something different to the table. One's great with character development, one with the heart behind the story, etc. They catch onto a detail I might have missed. So I do appreciate their feedback. I'm perfectly fine with ignoring what I don't agree with. However, I remember the first time I entered a contest and got the critiques back. Those did shake my confidence, and it took me quite awhile to be able to deal with criticism like what I got from one judge. I have a bit more confidence now, and I take what I want from it. For kids, and those with less confidence, it's a big deal, and can definitely shatter confidence and ability. So, while I like my critique group, I recommend people at least be familiar with the other people and their writing to know what they're entering into, and if it will work for them. Or to avoid it until that confidence exists.

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    1. Shannon: The problem with contests like that is that, generally speaking, the "judges" are no more qualified than the people entering. They are peers but have been given more weight by being called judges, so we give their words more credibility than they deserve,

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  15. Your point about learning the incorrect correction made me laugh. Back when I taught EFL in Japan, I'd see the same mistakes so many times in their writing because they'd all learned the same incorrect way. After a while, I'd start to question if, perhaps, I was the one who was wrong.

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    1. TAS: It's hard when you're the only one doing something the correct way, like maintaining the speed limit when everyone around you is zipping past. I have to look all the time, now, at "your" and "you're" to make sure it's the correct version because it's so misused. It's not automatic for me anymore.

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    2. Constructive criticism (of which editing is a form) is a skill well-worth learning. What people need to do it well is tact. Few have it.

      At any rate, critique should be about a lot more than pointing out mistakes - whether they're truly mistakes or not.

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    3. TAS: Yes, a critique should say what is bad -and- what is good. These weren't critiques, though, just editing.

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  16. It's hard when someone criticizes our kids:) I agree, get feedback but sometimes your CP's comments are subjective. I look forward to reading your son's story!

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  17. Jennifer: Not just subjective but objectively wrong. There's a huge difference in that.
    I will be sure to let people know when it's available.

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  18. Again, I find myself agreeing with everything you are saying here. But I would like to add that respecting the opinions of people who are not experts in a field is leading America down a dangerous path. In particular, I have in mind the measles outbreak. Science and medicine experts tell us that vaccines are necessary to keep these dangerous diseases in check. But people have been allowed to "opt out" based on belief that is not founded on science. Rather, the evidence if any is anecdotal (I heard from someone that someone said that this may cause autism). It's the same kind of thing you are pointing out here with your son's writing. "I hear that this is the way it's supposed to be so I'm going to correct your paper and point out all the things he did wrong but aren't actually wrong because I don't know what I'm talking about."

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    1. Michael: I don't disagree with that. We've reached some kind of weird point where the right to believe whatever we want to believe somehow equates to the beliefs being valid in some kind of factual sense. And, I have to say, when we allow politicians to spout off in interviews about how vaccinations can be harmful... well, I'm sorry, that that guy is even in office is beyond me. It's like, in a lot of ways, we're aspiring to stupidity.

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  19. Boy, you get a lot of comments!

    Editing your own work is tough, whether or not you know the rules of grammar and punctuation. We tend to read what we THINK is there and not what is really there, when it's something we've written and rewritten.

    Letting it sit for a while can help, or having a few trusted people read it. Or just getting better at it, as you said. Writing isn't all about writing, anymore than football quarterbacking is all about long passes. So writers have to learn to edit.

    What's REALLY bothersome about this is that your kid's schoolteacher didn't look at the 'edits' and correct THEM. It's disheartening to realize how many people make it to freshman year (or farther) without any real idea about punctuation and grammar rules. (I'll count myself in there. I'm pretty haphazard about it, or was before you began reviewing my books.)

    On the 'style' points, I disagree with editors almost entirely. Long sentences, short sentences, voice: those things are HARD to edit. I tend to use long sentences. One reason I've enjoyed my story-a-day project is because it's teaching me to edit so well. But I still LIKE long sentences, and so when I get a rejection from a story site (as I did) that says "the sentences are too long and complex" I get annoyed That's a STYLE thing.

    I just finished a couple edits of my book, and most of them were between style and punctuation. Most were helpful -- things like asking me to flesh out a scene more, or cut down on the confusion by using speech tags. But that's very different from "I don't like the way you structure sentences."

    If this is the kid that wrote that story for my site, you're right: he IS talented. But all your kids are talented.

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    1. Briane: Same kid, yes. I think this story, in particular, is one that you'll like.

      Editing is tough and, probably, editors should try specifically to not edit style at all. Voice comes out of style, after all. I suppose, though, one thing that editors who work for publishers are doing is trying to change the voice of the author to some voice that fits with what the publisher wants. And that's going into a different topic altogether. At any rate, authors would do better by themselves if they learned the technical parts of the writing so that they could use it they want to... you know, rather than driving a car around as if it's a bumper car.

      I like long sentences, too, just by the way. They take more work for the reader, though, so I get that some (non)readers can't handle them.

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