Imagine this scenario: You have a new colleague who might (hypothetically) be your boss. Over the course of several email communications, it becomes clear that this colleague has internalized a misunderstanding about punctuation and is overgeneralizing it consistently in their writing.
So it’s not a typo, and it’s not a random error. It’s every time.
Let’s say it’s something like offsetting every name with commas, whether it is appropriate or not. For example, it would be necessary to use commas in a sentence like: Our librarian, Mary Readmore, will be heading up this project. It would be incorrect to use commas in the following sentence: I asked, John, to share what he’s found successful in his third grade writing workshop.
What do you do?
You could ignore it, out of fear that this new colleague might be offended (and embarrassed) to have the error brought up by a subordinate. Or you might address it with this colleague directly, as challenging as that might feel.
When this scenario happened to me (years ago), it did give me pause. As a teacher of writers, I am not the conventions police—I have always been the kind of writer who values content over conventions in the workshop. This is not to say I do not teach conventions or have high expectations for their use. However, it would be fair to say that this particular situation challenged me to think about grammar, punctuation, and spelling differently—shifting the way I approached conventions in the classroom going forward.
As I debated the best way to approach the comma issue with my colleague, it boiled down to two key issues. One, I respected this new colleague very much, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it would be disrespectful to not address it.
This colleague was communicating in writing with other staff members and with the community. The way we present ourselves in writing matters, and I wanted this colleague to be successful. Making this error in front of hundreds of people over and over again would not help this colleague to make the impression they were working so hard to make.
Bottom line, this colleague had no idea that they were making this error. The consistency in the error made it clear that they would continue to overgeneralize the commas around names rule until this misconception was corrected.
Practice makes permanent, right?
The second big realization that tipped the scales toward a direct approach was what staying quiet might communicate to this colleague. I realized that by not addressing the error, what I would be saying (indirectly) is that I did not believe this colleague was capable of learning how to use commas correctly. This was a horrifying thought, because, of course, I believed them to be highly capable.
Once I had decided I needed to address the error directly, I thought about how I might do this with any other writer. Essentially, I had done some research about this writer, noticed a pattern in their writing, and now I had something to teach them.
Rather than sit side by side in a workshop, I composed an email. (Perhaps face-to-face would have been a braver approach, but this is what I did.) Miraculously, I was able to find it—lucky for me, inbox zero has never been a goal:
Quick (and a little bit awkward) question: Would you want someone to let you know if you were consistently making a punctuation error in written communication? If it were me, I’d want to know, so. . .
In the email attached to this (respectfully offered) feedback, you used commas around names (Paula and Rob) each time—these are not necessary. Commas around names are only needed if the sentence also includes a clause that further defines the name (e.g. Our instructional coach, Amy, will follow up with you. . .).
The trick I remember being taught to help remember this is that the sentence should still hold up syntactically if you remove what’s inside the commas from the sentence entirely. If it wouldn’t hold up to remove it, then you don’t need the commas.
I realize I’m crazy Type A about editing (well outside the norm), and I don’t generally apply that same standard to others—especially in casual written communication. However, this particular error seems to be more of a pattern over time than a one-off, so out of respect, I thought I’d just be direct. A spinach-in-the-teeth-of-an-email scenario. . .
My colleague received this email positively, which, in retrospect, does not surprise me at all. This is a person who cares deeply about their work, a learner and a leader. The feedback was respectfully offered, not to be critical, but in service of the writer’s professional goals. I knew how much it mattered to this colleague to communicate effectively with the school community and staff. A repeated error might have damaged this colleague’s credibility with some readers (unfair but true), and that was avoidable with a quick teaching point.
I connected the feedback to a sample of their own writing for context—just like I would do in a workshop—pointing out a place where they were using commas correctly as well as where they could see commas that were unnecessary.
A little self-deprecating humor never hurts either. I’m super aware of how psychotic I am about editing my own writing. And while I would never hold others to that level of perfectionism, this experience did prompt me to reflect on whether I too often default to not addressing errors in conventions with student writers because my focus is content, organization, or craft. I began to wonder if I had been selling kids short, missing opportunities for instruction because I was so determined not to make conventions the sole focus of any conference.
Big picture, I don’t want writers to think that conventions are the most important thing—they definitely aren’t—but when I applied those same ahas I had with my colleague to working with student writers, it brought two questions into clear focus:
- Do I respect writers (and their goals) enough to bring an issue that interferes with those goals to their attention?
- Do I believe writers are capable of learning and doing better?
The answer to both questions, of course, is yes.
As a result, I have become more strategic in my conferring with student writers. I’ve learned that I can maintain focus on content, organization, and craft while also challenging writers to learn and apply the conventions that will help them to most clearly and effectively communicate with their readers.
I’m transparent in these conferences with the beliefs driving this attention to detail across all facets of their writing. It’s important for writers to know how much I value them and support their writing goals. When I can teach them something that furthers those goals, I’m going to do that. And because I believe in each writer’s capacity to grow and learn, I’m always going to positively presume that the skill they are demonstrating readiness to learn is the right next step.
We can’t learn better and do better if we don’t see the spinach in the teeth of our own writing. Writers need feedback on how the conventions are working in their writing just as much as they need feedback on content, organization, and craft. Writers (of all ages) working with purpose to grow will appreciate both the heads up and the opportunity to practice and master new skills.
Reader, writer, and instructional coach. Always thinking. Collaborating to innovate the learning experience for students and educators.