Tips on Editing the Work
of a Fellow Student


If the draft isn't double-spaced, with wide margins for your comments, complain.

Get the big picture first. Skim the whole piece quickly, ignoring all the little flaws and trying to get a clear sense of the main contention. Is there a coherent focus to the essay? If you think so, state it in your own words at the end of the text, asking your author if that's the main point. If it's not, then the author knows that the essay isn't clear enough. If there isn't a coherent focus, then indicate that at the end of the essay and suggest a couple of candidates that are more-or-less present.

Titles count. Is there a title? If not, complain. If so, does it hint at the main contention? If not, complain. If so, write something congratulatory. A memorable title provokes the reader's curiosity at the beginning of the essay and then underscores the thesis by the end.

Check for organization. Hold each page out at arm's length, where you can't read each word but you can see the paragraphing. Are there more than three paragraphs per page? If so, complain. That characteristic almost always indicates poor organization in an essay. Those who write a paper by launching right in without an outline are most prone to this problem. If you encounter it, try to come up with an outline that will help the author restructure. Writing little glosses in the margin usually helps. (A gloss, by the way, is one of those one-phrase or one-sentence paragraph summaries that used to appear in the margins of well-made books a long time ago. You might have seen them in prayer books and the like. Check the word "gloss" in a dictionary if it's new to you. Parenthetically, this is where the phrase "glossing over" comes from.)

Check for internal consistency. For example, does the author claim on page 1 that President Clinton had few options, but then claim on page 4 that President Clinton could have done whatever he pleased? Fear of such problems gives professional historians nightmares.

Ascertain that the emphasis is upon causation, not moral judgment. We are not here, primarily at least, to decide what ought to have happened. Trying to determine what did happen, and why, and with what consequences, is work enough. Sure, moral considerations enter into such analysis, but they are not the primary concern.

Scrutinize the causal model, and play devil's advocate. Here is where Carr comes in handy. What kind of causal claims is the author making? Are they oversimplistic (e.g., unicausal, as in Carr, ca. page 116)? Are they improbable in any other way? Is there any circular reasoning present (e.g., urbanization happened because people began to live closer together)? If there are no obvious weaknesses of this sort, then don the hat of someone who would bring a different perspective to the subject, and tell the author how others might object to the thesis. That way, during revisions, the author can anticipate critics. While you're at it, check for sophomoric exaggeration. (Look up the word "sophomoric" in a good dictionary. Teachers like me coined the term during fits of frustration.)

Check for accuracy, honesty, and concreteness. Note all errors of evidence and all failures to acknowledge sources of quotations, evidence, or interpretive insights. Check the frequency with which the author uses proper names and the like, and tag any vague, wishy-washy formulations in which the active agents are impersonal abstractions like "the government" or "the media" or "the people". (These are known as "reifications".)

Finally, get out your Strunk & White and your copy of my pointers and go after the style. Watch for wordiness, poor diction (e.g., using "exhaust pipe" instead of "smokestack" to describe that tall thing at the factory), over-reliance on adjectives and adverbs, the common flubs (e.g., "there" for "their", "it's" for "its"), spelling errors, unnecessary use of passive voice, and general clumsiness. Tag any awkward or unclear passage so that the author will know where to concentrate effort during revision.

Write a soothing, encouraging message at the end of the draft to help heal the poor author's bruised ego.