How do I become a better writing tutor/coach for my coworkers?
May 3, 2010 9:47 PM   Subscribe

How do I become a better writing tutor/coach for my coworkers?

My job includes copyediting for a mix of both native and non-native English speakers. Mostly I edit research proposals, technical reports, journal articles, posters, and presentations for scientists and engineers, but lately I've also been working on fundraising and other non-technical pieces for the administration.

As I work with the same writers over and over I've noticed that they tend to make the same mistakes over and over. It seems like it would be a better use of everybody's time if I taught them not to make these mistakes in the first place than for them to continue to make them and me continue to correct them. The writers I work with would be receptive to this kind of help -- so far, they've all seemed genuinely appreciative when I've taken the time to explain a rule, print out a guide, or lend a reference book.

However, if I want to become more of a writing tutor/coach and less of just a copyeditor, I need to overcome a couple of challenges:

1) I'm a native English speaker who learned to write more from reading a lot than from formal classroom instruction. I didn't really learn any English grammatical terms until I studied Spanish! My editing decisions are based on what looks or sounds right to my native eye or ear instead of on a grammar rulebook. So, I don't really know how to explain "the rules" very well, especially to non-native speakers -- for example, how do I articulate when, why, and how to use "a/an" or "the" to someone whose first language doesn't include articles?!

2) Most of my copyediting projects are rush jobs done in the days or hours before an external deadline. Usually, I barely have enough time to make one pass to fix indisputable errors and format the piece so that it adheres to the journal's or sponsor's style guide, much take the time to less address discretionary issues of writing style, flow, and organization or explain why I fixed what I fixed. I could meet with the writer later when we're both less rushed, but by then I'd have forgotten most of the patterns of errors I'd noticed in the moment.


I don't really know what I need, but I have a few ideas of what kind of resources might help me, if anyone has any recommendations:

- A checklist I could use to tally up specific types of errors I see while I'm editing, so that I could diagnose each writer's biggest problem areas.

- Something that would teach me how to identify English errors more analytically -- for example, I'd like to be able to read a piece and realize "this person has trouble with conditional clauses" instead of just "this sentence 'sounds' wrong to me."

- A good, ESL-friendly online reference that I could use as a teaching aide: something broken out by specific topics, so once I've identified that a writer needs to work on X, Y, and Z, I could send them links to detailed explanations of just X, Y, and Z instead of throwing an entire grammar book at them.

What else might help, given my goal and constraints?

posted by Jacqueline to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Obligatory embarrassing error in a post about how one's own editing skillz are l33t:

"...much take the time to less address discretionary issues..."

I meant, "much less take the time to address discretionary issues..."
posted by Jacqueline at 9:52 PM on May 3, 2010

Do you have any books on grammar? Your first issues is the bigger one; you don't know how to articulate why something is wrong, just that it is. I recommend a book like Grammatically Correct, which is pretty straightforward and easy to understand. (Looks like there's a 2nd Edition coming out soon.) It uses a lot of lists, examples, and exercises to help you get a handle on formal terms for the things people are doing wrong. That one's just a book I've had a good experience with; I'm sure there are other good ones. I've known several professors who love Diana Hacker's guides to writing, though I found them much harder reads, personally.

The point is, once you know the terms, it's much easier to explain why something is wrong, which is the biggest thing you'll need.

I don't know that there are any big "checklists of writing and grammar errors" out there; my recommendation would be to make one, just like you'd make a stylesheet. I don't know of many good online resources, unfortunately. I usually just keep the Chicago Manual of Style on my desk, but their online thing requires a subscription, which isn't helpful.
posted by Caduceus at 10:26 PM on May 3, 2010

I have used English Grammar in Use in a similar situation. I also have trouble naming what the problem is, but my students would say "I don't know when to use whose and who's" for example, and this book allows me to look up words to find where the problems are. The explanations and exercises are clear and really helped my students.

I also encouraged them to read -- Dr Seuss! Out loud. I figured I learnt to write like you, by reading, and if they read more they would get used to hearing what is right and wrong. Some people really love this approach. Some feel ridiculous!

I love the Chicago Manual of Style online. The subscription fee is reasonable (at least for a single user), but I do also use other online style guides -- The Guardian, The Economist and sometimes the Wikipedia style guide.
posted by bwonder2 at 11:46 PM on May 3, 2010

Warning that I'm about to sound like an advertisement, yet I am not affiliated with this company in any way.

Do they write in Microsoft Word? Does your company have an extra $160 to help with this effort... something you can show is worth the cost in time savings for you alone? Buy (or at least get the demo of) StyleWriter. I honestly think that every writer can be improved by using this software. It works with Word. After you type out a document, you run the software. It shows you all the mistakes, gives you the reason it's a mistake, offers suggestions for fixing it, has settings so you can make it work best for the type of writing, and even offers little reports to show you a big picture of your writing style and problems. I first read about it years ago, in an STC (Society for Technical Communications) software review. It's worth every penny.

It has the side-benefit of taking you out of the pride-of-authorship loop. You say that they like the help, but it seems that most people -- at least every now and then -- have that particular pride and feel a little crushed/defensive after multiple corrections.
posted by Houstonian at 3:10 AM on May 4, 2010

Greetings OP,

Great idea – I used to work at a company as a medical writer (primary articles and scientific posters) and worked closely with our editor to improve my writing. I brought my questions to the editor and did create my own crib sheet of my commonly made errors. Finally, I convinced the boss to let us have a class given by the editor – best investment ever (for me), so we would cover topics each week (eg, capitalization, referencing, etc.)

One of the big things that I learned working at my med ed company (and this is obvious in retrospect) – if you know the particular journal that you are planning to write your piece for or conference for the poster, look at the guidelines online first. Cut and paste this info into your draft. For example, over abstract, I paste:

[[Abstract – limit 250 words; total words in abstract = (I put the number that ended up in the abstract here), also include clinical trial registration number]]

Do the same for your figures:

[[Figures – limit 6 figures + Consort figure; total figures = 6]]

That way people reviewing it don’t decide they want a 500 word abstract, etc. When you are ready to submit the article, you can quickly pull this stuff off by searching and deleting the [[stuff]]

I also really believe a problem a lot of writers for science articles (in medical journals) is the organization of the material. For example, to me, if you are writing a phase III study, it is great to end the last paragraph of the introduction with something along the lines of …Previously in a phase II study, the efficacy and safety of drug X was demonstrated in a population of patients with disease X. This study is a randomized, multicenter phase III study designed to evaluate with blah blah as a primary endpoint. The only way to figure that out if you are writing outside your area of expertise is to look at a few well written articles from that field. So if you are editing material for one particular area, perhaps identify a few well written articles from that journal (or a high tier journal) and have that available for people.

One more thing that I am going to say that extends beyond what you do and I think is even more important but I think it should be conveyed to writers of posters and primary articles is the need to include certain material in the article. For example, CONSORT guidelines let you know the info that should appear in a clinical trial The statistical section of the methods, for example, should state whether the study was sufficiently powered or not. Please point your writers towards this information.

Our editor helped me by creating a summary sheet and putting it on the server. She also organized material by certain topics (eg, capitalization, etc.).

This is the list of things that I always mess up and make a point of double checking:

• Do the figure numbers match the reference number in the text?
• Are they in numerical order (figure 1, figure 2, etc. in the text)? (I bold this early on in case material is moved around so I can verify this again)
• Is the acronym defined the first time in the text, but not later on? (I make a list of acronyms that I use to double check it)?
• Coypedit the references at the end (is there the correct spaces, if the title is italicized, is it?) To be honest, it is probably better to invest and learn how to use something like Refman even though it is painful in the beginning
• If it is a poster, look for consistent punctuation (either do or do not have a period at the end of your bulleted statements, make it consistent)
• If it is a poster, define acronyms on the bottom of the figure or text
• Is the font size the same for the text? (or per the recommendation for the article?)
• Use spell check and use google scholar to verify (there are so many new drugs that they will come out as errors on spell check …double check in google scholar to see if your drug spelling is there and if it is referenced. You can even use this to verify phrasing).

Things that I have seen other writers have a hard time with:

• Capitalization (don’t make random words such as the generic name of a drug with capital letters – you may need to watch out because reviewers from other companies decide that their Magical Drug and anything that refers to the properties of their Magical Drug deserves to be capitalized whenever you refer to it)
• Numbers (for example, P=.05, but if it is a number for a unit in a table 0.05) (This is specified in the AMA style guide, but it may not apply to your particular area)

I am going to be honest and say that my brain just doesn’t do language well (biology – yes, language – no), so I worked on my basic grammar skills by reading and perusing Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” (short length, examples of misused words) and occasionally listed to the podcast Grammar Girl- short little discussions of misused words and grammar rules. I was going to put in the links to Grammar girl, etc, but I gave this info before in a similar question, which also may help you. See this question here and the person asking is a scientist (asking the question - how to improve as a writer).

Please share what you do end up creating and doing with your writers, even by memail at a later point...I work with other companies (and sometimes other writers as a favor)...I would love to see what someone else creates or does to help people with this in particular. I have always had my own check list, but it never entered my head that other people could do the same thing.

posted by Wolfster at 7:35 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have some advice for how to handle the correction phase.

First, you need to be collecting those errors while you are doing your editing, so you don't forget about them later. Can you just get used to printing a single page before you make the editing correction? Can you make a folder on your desktop and save a copy of the original document before you start editing, then when you find an error, jot down a handwritten note "pg 7 WHOM" or "pg 9 I CAN HAZ". Once your crunch time is over, you have the original and can go back to add up what types of errors are happening.

If you can collect the data like that, you'll have a good idea of where to start with the mentoring. My suggestion (which we used at my office) is to not handle each error with each individual, but make a group effort: schedule a regular weekly meeting (30 minutes, unless you do it at lunch time and provide lunch!) during which you give a presentation about a specific topic. The topics will come from your collections of errors, or you can present another topic if it makes sense, or anyone can suggest a topic. It doesn't always have to be grammar - you can do office policies or the rules of baseball.

If the meeting is weekly and everyone expects it, there isn't a feeling like "she's out to get me"; it's more like "we're a learning organization and we're all working together to improve every week".

If your office has that type of attitude, then you can even assign the various offenders to make the next week's presentation - you show them their error, explain why, direct them to some online resources, then have them prepare a presentation to inform the others what was wrong and how to fix it. Everyone knows they'll be presenting sometime; they'll start volunteering.
posted by CathyG at 8:26 AM on May 4, 2010

In my experience, people who submit their work for editing don't care about what they did wrong. They just want you to fix it. I have come to believe that this is because the semi-literate persuade themselves that what they know is more important than how they express what they know.

Compiling error stats is a waste of time. But, hey, knock yourself out.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:08 PM on May 4, 2010

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