editing · grammar · partnerships · routines · spelling

Something Do-Able to Try: The Editing Minute

In the weeks leading up to winter break, it can feel impossible to introduce anything new to writing workshop. With just a few weeks before break to wrap up everything, most of us are in get-it-done mode from here on out.

However, there is one simple routine you could try from now until this decade’s last day of school. It’s totally, completely, do-able.

I call it the “Editing Minute.”

Modeled on what proficient writers actually do, the Editing Minute is just like it sounds – it’s simply taking one minute to reread your writing for grammatical and spelling errors before you put it away. Most of us probably do it without even thinking much about it, but our young writers might not have developed this important habit.

In the best-selling book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life by Charles Duhigg he explains how habits are formed. Essentially, a habit involves:

  1. A cue
  2. A routine
  3. A reward

In writing workshop, we can help our writers develop the habit of proofreading their writing before they put it away by simply:

  1. Providing a cue
  2. Demonstrating and coaching into a routine
  3. Creating space for an intrinsic reward

Step 1: The Cue

First, find a way to cue yourself to remember to end writing workshop a minute early. I like to use a timer throughout the workshop to help me manage my time. I have a timer on my watch, but I also like to use a timer that is visible to kids so that they are a part of managing the workshop as well.

A timer only takes care of the most basic part of the cue – stopping writing workshop. The other part is to provide a cue to proofread and edit that is memorable and transferable. After all, the goal is to teach writers the habit of proofreading their writing whenever they write — not only during writing workshop, and not only when their teacher is their to direct them to do it. The language and visual support we use can help with this. Consider this:

Instead of saying…Try saying…
“It’s time to proofread your writing right now.”Everytime you put away your writing, take a minute to reread it to make sure it’s easy for others to read.”
“I want you to reread your writing for spelling and grammar.”Checking your spelling and grammar each time you put away your writing will make it easier for other people to read your writing.”
“Find three things to fix right now.”“Each time you put away your work, use a personal checklist to notice the grammar and spelling you most often need help with.”
“I’m giving directions right now. Listen closely so you don’t forget.”Provide a chart or visual support so that students can look back at it in the moment, but also throughout the day. 

Using language that is transferable to any piece of writing, and that makes the purpose of the work clear will help establish a rereading and editing routine that will eventually, hopefully, stick.

Ultimately, the goal will be for the end of any time spent writing to be the cue, in and of itself, so that students automatically, out of habit, begin to reread before they put away their work. The timer, the prompt, and visual support are all in-between steps (scaffolds) to get them there. It will take consistency, repetition, and time to attain automaticity and independence.

Step 2: The Routine

The cue is just the beginning. What happens next is equally important for establishing a successful, productive habit.

Chances are, it is not explicit enough to say to a your writers, “Every time you put away your writing, take a minute to reread it to make sure it’s easy for others to read.” You probably need to be more specific regarding:

  1. What exactly to look for while rereading
  2. How exactly to reread

Explicit, direct instruction, will probably be helpful in the beginning while establishing a routine for proofreading and editing. Break it down, step-by-step for your writers taking into account their age and level of experience as writers. Here’s a protocol that I’ve found really helpful for all ages:

Step 1: Take out your personal editing checklist and review your list (examples below).

Step 2: Choose one (1) item from your editing checklist to focus on for today.

Step 3: Reread your writing, one word at at a time, or one sentence at a time, looking especially for that one thing.

Step 4: Even if you don’t usually point under the words when you read, proofreading/editing is a different kind of reading. It’s helpful to point under your words when you proofread and edit to be sure you don’t miss anything.

Step 5: When you notice something that needs to be changed, use your special editing pen to put a line through it to make a change or add something in.

Editing checklists are most helpful for young writers when there are just three or four items on the list, based on my findings (un-scientific but based on common sense). When there are too many items on the list for each student, I find a few troublesome things can happen:

  • Some of the items on a longer list tend to be too easy, contributing to the student’s notion that they are “already doing everything.”
  • Too many of the items on the longer list are too hard, contributing to a student’s feeling that this work is overwhelming.
  • A longer list might be appropriate occasionally (publishing, for instance) but for a daily one minute editing routine, a long list simply isn’t practical or desirable.
  • The shorter list seems to have ripple effects — while focusing on just a few items, students have greater success in finding those items in their own writing, and therefore find value in using a checklist at all,

To introduce personal editing checklists, I distribute a blank checklist or post-it to each student. I then ask students to self-select ONE item to add to their checklist on their own. I’ve found that kids generally have a pretty good idea of what they need to be on the lookout for in their own writing. Typically kids will write, “end punctuation,” or “capitals,” or “word wall words.” I coach them a bit to be as specific as possible. If they say “spelling,” I try to get them to name one or two spelling patterns they know they should look for (perhaps -ing, -ies, they’re/their/there, etc). I do a quick scan of everybody’s checklist to be sure everybody has something reasonable, using what I know about the students.

Then, through conferring and quick small groups over the next few days, I help students add two or three more to their list. For more details on the checklists and how to introduce them, see this post from a few months ago.

You might also be wondering about the editing pens mentioned earlier. In the Units of Study for Opinion/Argument, Information, and Narrative Writing purple revision/editing pens are mentioned in a number of units. Essentially, these are special purple pens (or green, or whatever color you choose) that are kept in a special cup on each table, or provided one for each student. These pens are only used for revision and editing, so that students can see, visually, all the great work they’ve done to go back and make revisions and edits to their writing. Having their initial draft in one color, and subsequent changes in a different color accomplishes two things: 1) the special pen is an enticement to do the work – kids love using a special pen, 2) having the work in a different color makes it possible for you to assess how much and what kind of revisions and edits your students are successfully doing on their own.

Step 3: The Reward

In order for a habit to stick, according to Charles Duhigg, your brain needs to learn that something is worth remembering. There needs to be a reward. In writing workshop, our biggest rewards have to do with the writing serving a meaningful purpose, and having a meaningful audience. (Meaningful, in an authentic way, to the student.)

Working in partnerships to edit each other’s work can be rewarding–partners have an audience and clear purpose “baked in,” so long as some teaching goes into how to be a supportive partner. Some options might include:

  • Proofread your own, then swap papers and proofread each other.
  • Partner read & edit one partner’s work one day, then do the other partner’s the next day.
  • One partner reads their own work aloud, while the other partner looks on and gives a signal to stop when there is something to change.

Self-assessment can also be rewarding, especially when it creates the possibility to see change over time. A few ways to support this:

  • At the very end of the editing minute, ask students to do a thumbs up or raise their hand if they made one change, two changes, three changes, or more, and congratulate them on finding edits to make.
  • At the start of a week, ask students to set a goal related to one of their editing checklist items, then check in throughout the week on their progress. Examples might include: “I’m going to use end punctuation for every sentence by the end of the week.” or “I’m not going to mix any capitals and lower-cases in my writing this week.”

Step 4: Practice

There is one key to success in establishing a habit that is quite simple: repetition and practice. “Left to its own devices,” says Duhigg, “the brain will try to try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often” (p. 18).

The brain needs to operate efficiently, in order to conserve mental energy for more sophisticated and complicated things, so the brain loves to find patterns and form habits out of them. However, just as good habits can form–so can bad habits. There are some predictable bad habits when it comes to proofreading and editing:

  • Trying to proofread for grammar or spelling that the student hasn’t actually begun to use in their writing yet. This forces the student to reread hoping to find something, and never finding it because they don’t yet know what it looks like (if the student is even able to stay engaged in the task at all).
  • Reading too quickly or too fluently while proofreading – reading expressively is a good thing – but proofreading requires you to slow down and read words and sentences in isolation. A good habit, to start, is to read aloud, one-word at a time, and to even point under the words. With practice, it is possible that some writers can eventually proofread silently — but even adult, professional writers find it helpful to slow down and read aloud when proofreading.
  • Trying to look for a list of items that is too easy – your brain comes to expect that your writing is “perfect” anyway, so why expend energy proofreading too closely? Some students will gloss over their own writing thinking that they are proofreading, but because they expect that all the words will be perfect, they are set up to find it difficult to notice their own mistakes. Having a list of items matched to the common mistakes they actually make will help them to break out of this mindset.

We can avoid bad habits, by teaching into and coaching good habits. A daily Editing Minute gives you the time and daily opportunity to revisit a proofreading and editing habit again and again.

2 thoughts on “Something Do-Able to Try: The Editing Minute

  1. I am working with adult poets who have never taken a class. I am going to share this with them, in an effort to introduce a framework for editing their own work. I worked with student poets at the elementary level for over 35 years. Thank you for this valuable tool that I will use, with your permission, moving forward.

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