The Editing Process in Writing: A Performance Study of More Skilled The composing process is usually

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  • The Editing Process in Writing: A Performance Study of More Skilled and Less Skilled College Writers Author(s): Glynda Hull Reviewed work(s): Source: Research in the Teaching of English, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Feb., 1987), pp. 8-29 Published by: National Council of Teachers of English Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40171099 . Accessed: 30/11/2011 16:31

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  • The Editing Process in Writing: A Performance Study of More Skilled and Less Skilled College Writers

    Glynda Hull, University of California, Berkeley

    Abstract. Two groups of college writers (more skilled and less skilled editors) corrected and commented upon the sentence-level errors in two tasks (a self- written essay and three essays written by others), under two conditions (no feedback and feedback on location of error). Analyses of students' corrections showed that, while the more skilled writers almost always corrected more errors than the less skilled, the two groups per- formed similarly on the self-written essays where neither corrected many errors at all. Both groups performed better on the standard essays and better with feedback. Analyses of students' protocols showed that three strategies which were used for correcting errors (consulting, intuiting, and comprehending) varied with task and condition.

    Error in writing has been a sore topic for a long time. Over a hundred years ago, Harvard President Charles W. Eliot complained that "bad spell- ing, incorrectness as well as inelegance of expression in writing, [and] igno- rance of the simplest rules ... of punctuation are far from rare among young men of eighteen" (Cited in Hook, 1979, p.8). More recent complaints take a different tack, focussing most often on the unprofitability of too great a concern for correctness, particularly when such a concern involves the teaching of grammar and an attendant neglect of the teaching of compo- sition skills (see, for example, Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, & Schoer, 1963; Petrosky, 1977; Perl, 1979; Ponsot & Deen, 1982). Such complaints serve the good purpose of broadening conceptions of what should be taught in the name of writing. At the same time, we know that some writers have great difficulty with sentence-level error, difficulty which does not go away by itself and which needs the attention of teachers and researchers. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (1980), for example, has identified two distinct populations of seventeen-year-olds based on an analysis of writing mechanics: one which "appears to have a general, though imperfect, grasp of written language" and another which "appears to be virtually lost" (p. 44).

    The most convincing demonstration of the difficulty that basic writers have with error is Mina Shaughnessy's Errors and Expectations (1977). This

    This research was carried out at the University of Pittsburgh as a doctoral thesis under the direction of William L. Smith.

    Research in the Teaching of English, Vol. 21, No. 1, February 1987

    8

  • The Editing Process in Writing 9

    rich interpretive taxonomy has little to do with giving students up for lost, however, for Shaughnessy was interested in allowing researchers and teach- ers to see that there are other causes for error in writing besides ignorance and carelessness. Like researchers studying child language acquisition and second language learning, she, and Kroll and Schafer (1978) after her, dem- onstrated that one can identify patterns of error which often reveal the consistent application of erroneous rules or buggy procedures and which imply faulty logic and misconceptions - but a logic and an intention none- theless. They showed, then, that the processes of making errors and learning to correct them can be interpreted within a theory of how language learning occurs. This kind of research gave teachers a new perspective on error, for it pointed the way to cognitive diagnosis: examine a text, talk to a student, determine the reason for a type of error. (But see Ney, 1986, for a critique of this approach.) It also gave researchers a new agenda: using errors to understand the development of and constraints on writing ability.

    Some scholarship on error in the writing of young adults has followed Shaughnessy's lead, taking as its aim to trace errors to their sources, with oral language being a predominant candidate. (See, for example, Epes, 1985, and the review by Morrow, 1985.) Other researchers have located the sources of sentence-level error in the limits of the human information-processing system. Most notably, Daiute's (1981) work demonstrates how constraints imposed by short term memory may lead to errors and also impede error detection and correction. Others have been interested in characterizing the editing process, taking as their purpose to provide a description of what happens after a student makes an error and returns to his or her text as an editor in order to detect and correct it. Bartholomae's (1980) case study of an inexperienced editor is an example of this research direction, as is the work of Lees (in press). The attitudes that inform this current research on error thus differ both from the traditional impatience with errorful writing and the more recent tendency to minimize its relative importance and thereby its gravity.

    Purpose and Design

    In the present study, my aim was to extend current research on error by investigating some of the variables that could affect the editing process. The emphasis was not, then, on discovering sources of errors, but on adding to what we know about the processes of detecting and correcting them. My approach was to study editing performance by comparing different groups of writers, under different conditions, on different tasks.

    I chose to study two groups of college writers who differed by virtue of their writing experience and editing skill. By juxtaposing the performance of writers who made few errors with writers who made considerably more, I hoped to determine some of the knowledge and skills that one group had

  • 10 Research in the leaching of English

    in contrast to the other. By comparing their performance when editing their own writing and someone else's, I intended to test whether editing varies as a function of task. One would intuitively expect performance to be superior when the task is to edit another's writing, and there is some experimental evidence to support this as well (Bartlett, 1982). By comparing writers' per- formance under two conditions, feedback on error location or no such feed- back, I planned to test whether focussed re-reading serves as a catalyst for

    editing. My expectation was that it would help. The composing process is

    usually represented as including a review component in which writers cycle through their texts in order to re-read, and this re-reading can trigger editing or revising. If, however, a writer reads a text and senses no disso- nance, even in a vague or amorphous way, the review process ceases to be

    self-regulatory. One way to facilitate error detection is to provide feedback on error location in order to foster self-corrective feedback. Thus, the

    design of the study allowed a comparison of the performance of different

    groups of writers, on different tasks, under different conditions. "Performance" as far as error correction goes is usually taken to mean

    frequency counts: the errors in a text are tabulated and categorized accord-

    ing to a descriptive taxonomy taken from or based upon a handbook. I, too, intended to conduct frequency counts based on textual analyses, but saw a need as well to develop a new taxonomy for error that could also serve as a scheme for categorizing writers' comments about their corrections. The usual assumption about sentence-level error is that such data are easily obtainable and easily categorized (e.g., Mellon, 1975), and that traditional taxonomies of error are therefore sufficiently descriptive systems. However, evidence is beginning to appear to the contrary.

    Scholars argue the impossibility of determining definitively a writer's intended text, even when that intended text is a student's essay and the reader is a teacher who wants only to construct a correct version of it. Bartholomae (1980), for example, claims that classifying an error is an

    interpretive act: "for any idiosyncratic sentence . . . there are often a variety of possible reconstructions, depending on the reader's sense of the larger meaning of which this individual sentence is only a part, but also depending upon the reader's ability to predict how this writer puts sentences together" (p. 265). There is also evidence of error's phenomenology. Williams (1981) demonstrated that readers find errors where they expect to find them, as in student essays, a