Monday 3 June 2013

Writing group: Commenting styles, part one

week two
Photo by Rona Keller
I got my writing group up and running in March, and it's been very successful so far. As I mentioned in my first description of the group, I've obtained much more than just comments on manuscript drafts. I've learned about the writing process, revision strategies, and tricks & tips that different people use. I've also learned about individual styles to writing, editing, and interpreting comments. And of course, there have been (minor) conflicts that arise from these individual differences.

My style of commenting was recently criticized by one of the group members for being too vague. My initial reaction was that it was simply a "different commenting style" reflecting our own preferences. However, his comments and a few examples he pointed out got me thinking about commenting styles. Below and in my follow-up posts (part two), I've summarized a few of the lessons I've learned throughout my MSc and PhD pertaining to writing, commenting, and revising.

1. Each person has his/her own commenting style. 

In general, people tend to provide the types of comments that they prefer to receive. If someone likes to receive full sentence corrections as demonstration of how a given sentence could be improved, s/he will tend to provide full sentence corrections when editing. Some go one step further to explain the rationale behind their full sentence suggestions. Some individuals prefer to "think out loud" while they comment, or simply write one- or two-word comments as they speed through the manuscript. Some tend to provide comments in question format, many of which are rhetorical, while others expect an answer. Differences in commenting styles can be frustrating, so it behooves the writing group to understand and appreciate each individual's style. Explicitly stating the types of comments one expects when distributing a text can also help.

2. The "teach a man to fish" approach walks a thin line between helpful and annoying. 

Some people (including many supervisors) write somewhat generic or vague comments which put the onus on the writer to identify and ultimately solve the problem. In theory, this commenting style helps the writer improve his/her writing abilities, it allows the writer to maintain his/her own voice or writing style, and it saves the editor's time. However, overly vague comments may not provide enough information for the writer to identify the problem in his/her writing. Commenters in favour of this approach should strive to provide enough detail that he writer can identify the problem, even if a full-sentence correction is not provided.

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