58.1, February 2011

An Analysis of Student Comments in Comprehensive Editing

Michael J. Albers and John F. Marsella


Purpose: A substantial skill in comprehensive editing is the ability to write constructive comments to the author. This study provides a view into how students make comments during a comprehensive edit of a technical document.

Method: Undergraduate technical editing students performed a comprehensive edit of a report. Data were derived from the editorial comments students made during the edit. Comments were coded for level of the comment (global, paragraph, or sentence), phrasing of the comment, and quality of the comment. A total of 132 comments were coded.

Results: Both effective and ineffective commenting habits were observed. Students were found to make a high percentage of paragraph-level comments and a low percentage of global and sentence-level comments. Most of the comments were rated as useful to an author. Looking at specific problem areas, most students missed commenting on four major problems within the text. The students seemed to be using a linear editing style of simply moving through the document from beginning to end, rather than using a top-down editing style or multiple passes.

Conclusions: When given instructions to perform a comprehensive edit, most students made comments that addressed global and paragraph-level issues, rather than sentence-level or copyediting issues. However, the overall quality and usefulness of the comments varied widely. As part of improving both writing and editing skills, technical communication pedagogy needs to focus more on overall document structure and how to structure sections within a document.

Keywords: comprehensive editing, editing comments, editing pedagogy, editor-author relationship

  • Technical communication pedagogy needs to better focus on improving students’ ability to develop editorial comments that communicate problems and potential solutions.
  • Teaching students how to perform a comprehensive edit requires teaching a focus on analyzing a document's global structures and writing useful comments.
  • If student editors and many nonprofessional writers work with similar levels of editorial skill, assuming similar levels of editing experience, the quality of the comments will vary widely and have a paragraph-level focus rather than a focus on higher level document structure.


Technical text creation occurs as a joint effort between the writer and the editor, with the editor tasked with ensuring that the author's text is “complete, accurate, correct, comprehensible, usable and appropriate for the readers” and giving the writer “ways to make the document easier for readers to understand and use” (Rude, 2006, p. 12). Thus, we can, at a high level, define an editor's job as ensuring that the writer's view of the content matches the reader's view and the realistic communication uses of the text. Teaching students how to edit in a manner that achieves this match requires teaching comprehensive editing. A substantial skill in comprehensive editing is the ability to write constructive comments to the author. Although this is a valuable skill, there seems to be no research into the type or quality of comments students actually make while performing comprehensive edits. Without understanding how they make comments, we cannot know if we need to adjust pedagogy to improve their commenting ability or what type of changes may be required.

The research may also provide a view into how comments are made on workplace documents by the nontechnical editors reviewing texts. In many ways, a technical review of a document acts as a form of comprehensive edit. Student editors and many nonprofessional writers will be working with similar levels of editorial skill. They have misconceptions about the editing (or review) process and lack a full knowledge of the language to express their concerns. Engineers, programmers, and other nonprofessional writers are constantly tasked with reviewing documents. The quality of the review and comments varies, but I do not know of any in-depth analysis of how they comment. This work could provide an interesting point of comparison between working professionals and students.

Literature Review

“One of the most crucial tasks of the technical communicator is to provide information that users need by carefully selecting the right mix of content and then developing, arranging, and presenting it effectively for the audience” (Hayhoe, 2002, p. 398). Developing a text that provides that information in an effective manner often requires interacting with an editor who works at the comprehensive and organizational level. For the editor to be an effective member within the writing process, those editorial comments need to written such that the author can both understand them and be willing to act upon them (Albers, 2005). For example, in studies looking at the interaction of editors and software engineers, Walkowski (1991) and Winsor (1993) both found that these software engineers more than to have their work copyedited. They expect a comprehensive edit with useful suggestions on how to improve their text, including ideas on how to reorganize it.

Willen (2004) writes that “the primary objective of feedback is to help the writer develop a document that addresses the needs and expectations of its audience” (p. 21). This goal is achieved when the editor not only recognizes problems in a document, but also offers suggestions about how to correct them. Eaton Brewer, Portewig, and Davidson. (2008ab) highlight the need for good-quality comments, since they found that about 72 percent of comprehensive edit comments are followed. Since authors follow such a high percentage of comments, there is a substantial risk of poor-quality comments damaging a document if the author blindly follows them. Poor-quality comments can also damage the editor-author relationship by causing the author to lose respect for the editor.

Ensuring that the editor works well with the author requires that the editor make good comments. Not a particularly easy task, since as Lanier (2004) points out, “authors may easily become offended and feel that they are being criticized rather than helped by the editors. Making sure that authors are content with the editing process is important for establishing a good collaborative relationship” (p. 526). Multiple articles have offered advice on how to write those suggestions, although, with only a few exceptions (primarily work by Eaton and her colleagues), these studies provided minimal empirical evidence supporting their advice.

Comments need to focus on improving the text to meet the reader's needs, and not personal preferences (Allen & Voss, 1998).

Comments should be structured to include the rational for the change: what is wrong with the text and what can be done to fix it (Gerich, 1994). Hart (2004) stresses using comments to clarify the nature of the edit, rather than simply changing text. Authors need a “payoff statement” that explains why they should follow the suggestion, as opposed to just giving an editorial directive (Eaton et al., 2008ab).

  • Comments need a context (Mackiewicz, 2005). Authors will interpret them based on both wording of the comment itself and how they see it fitting within the text. Perceptions of whether the comment is useful or positive/negative are highly dependent on the context.
  • Comments should be phrased as suggestions rather than directions to the author (Zimmerman & Taylor, 1999). As a limitation on their advice, Zimmerman and Taylor focus on copyediting rather than comprehensive editing, where a copyedit mark's appropriateness tends to be more black and white than a comprehensive edit comment. On the other hand, non-native English-speaking authors seem to need directives rather than suggestions because they experience problems parsing a suggestion's true underlying intent (Riley & Mackiewicz, 2003).
  • Authors prefer comments phrased as questions rather than commands (Dragga & Gong 1989; Eaton, et al., 2008ab). However, Mackiewicz and Riley (2003) suggest using questions only when the editor's actual purpose is inquiry.
  • Comments should help ensure that the document conforms to the house style, yet they must not do so at the expense of the author's voice (Allen & Voss, 1998). Of course, with both the movement to highly collaborative group-written documents and the movement toward dynamic text generation using technologies such as XML, the author's voice may have to be substantially modified to fit with the related text by other authors (Albers, 2000).

The preceding list points out that comments work best as suggestions or questions, with an underlying assumption that they are perceived as more polite and less demanding. Although this question has been examined in the context of non-native English-speaking authors, work with native English-speaking authors is not as extensive (Eaton et al., 2008ab). Riley and Mackiewicz (2003) say that directness is preferred to politeness since suggestions or questions make it harder for non-native speaker to parse the editor's intent.

Comments form a substantial factor in comprehensive editing, which tends to be described as a multilevel process (Anderson, Campbell, Hindle, Price, & Scasny, 1998; Buren & Fuehler, 1980). Editing textbooks (Rude, 2005; Samson, 1993) suggest starting at higher levels and working down; that is, the top-down editing style. The comprehensive editor must consider not only the document as a single entity, but also the coherence, structure, and style of lower levels, such as the paragraph and sentence levels. An editor is expected to identify any place within a document where any of these writing elements break down and make comments that guide the author in fixing the problems.

A substantial part of comprehensive editing is providing the author with a set of comments for improving the text. The ability of editors to make effective comments will strongly influence the strength of the editor-writer relationship (Farkas & Poltrock, 1995; Mackiewicz & Riley, 2003). Understanding why an editorial change was made or is being suggested can increase the likelihood of the author accepting the suggestion. On the other hand, authors did not like editors who undertook to rewrite the text because “it sounds better” or who made edits that changed the meaning (Gerich, 1994). Thus, developing effective commenting skills should be explicitly taught within a technical editing course.

The need for good comments is addressed in every editing textbook, but it is typically placed in terms of enhancing editor-author relationships, rather than in terms of producing quality comments. This creates a serious problem, as pointed out by Grady, Mayweather, Davis, and LaPlume. (2004):

Indeed, editing texts are full of instructions to students on how to foster good editor/author relationships. However, students often report their surprise at the difficulty of actually choosing the right tone when writing and speaking to authors and how much they learn about the language of negotiation when conducting editor/author conferences (p. 429).

A question thus arises of how adept students are at making comments as they perform a comprehensive edit. Assuming—as seems to be apparent from the literature—that the ability to make comments is vital for editors, technical editing courses need to explicitly focus on teaching this skill in both reading and in-class discussions. As part of learning to perform a comprehensive edit, students need to learn the following:

  • How to make effective comments. The comments need to be diplomatic, provide adequate detail, and explain the issue in enough depth to justify the suggested change.
  • How to focus comments on the main problems within the text. Student editors need to learn to see the higher level text problems and to clearly communicate those problems to an author.

In this study, we investigate the comments made by students during a comprehensive edit. By identifying the type and quality of the comments, we have a baseline on which to begin understanding how to better teach commenting in comprehensive editing. Exploring the typical editing difficulties students exhibit allows us to suggest to technical editing instructors which areas to concentrate on when teaching comprehensive editing skills.



The assignment was to perform a comprehensive edit of a seven-page Word document, which was a recommendation report comparing two electrical engineering textbooks. The purpose of the report was to enable a faculty committee to select a textbook for an introduction to electrical engineering course. The text was created by combining and rewriting reports created from a student report assignment into a single report. The document had errors on all levels of structure. The text contained copyedit-level errors (grammar and punctuation errors) in number and type, which were consistent with a typical student-written paper. The coursework on comprehensive editing had stressed ignoring copyediting errors until the major structural issues were fixed. Students were not expected to perform a copyedit as part of this study. Instead, they were told to focus the editing on improving the higher level problems with the text.

The samples for this study were collected from the results of a graded comprehensive editing assignment that was administered to 11 students in an undergraduate technical editing class. The assignment was completed by two students at a time in the researcher's office. The students worked separately on two computers using Microsoft Word XP on a standard landscape-oriented monitor. There was a 45-minute time limit for completing the assignment. TechSmith's Morae was used to create a screen video of the entire editing session. We acknowledge that the time limit poses a potential experimental confound and understand that many editors would prefer to print out the report to read before editing it. However, we also acknowledge the reality of how students tend to privilege finishing an assignment over doing it “by the book.” Most of the students completed the assignment before time expired, and none asked about printing it (a printer was available).

All of the students were English majors, with a concentration in professional and technical communication. The editing class is structured as the second course in the concentration sequence. Although the introduction to technical communication course is not a prerequisite, most of the students had completed it. The assignment was structured as a graded assignment given at the end of the unit on comprehensive editing, which occurred about three quarters of the way through the semester. Previous class assignments included both in-class and graded assignments on comprehensive editing, which included online editing using Microsoft Word. None of the students exhibited any difficulties with Word's track changes and comments features.

The University of Memphis Institutional Review Board approved the study, and students signed the approved release to use the assignment for research purposes.

Coding the Comments

The students’ comments were coded, but not their inline revisions to the text, since the study's purpose was to examine comments. Except for the students who attempted to rewrite the text, essentially all inline revisions were copyedits. The copyediting tended to be marking glaring errors and did not capture the majority of the copyedit-level problems.

The coding schema was iteratively developed (Corbin & Strauss, 2007; Creswell, 2003). It was based on the three levels of edits (global, paragraph, and sentence) and possible comment types within each level. The coding schema is described below. We started with a coding schema based on our expectations of what should be marked in the text and through the iterative process developed one that reflects actual student comments. Categories in which we expected to see comments but did not do not appear in the final schema. In this study, we were focused on what the students did comment on and not what they missed. We do acknowledge that future work needs to examine the types of editing issues students typically overlook.

Two coders independently marked all of the comments in the 11 samples. After the two coders had independently scored all the papers, they met, discussed their reasoning, and adjusted the coding so each paper had one set of codes, which was used for the analysis.

We defined a comment as a block of text related to a single idea or concept. In some instances a single comment contained multiple phrases or sentences. Tables 1, 2, and 3 show example comments which we considered one comment, although many have multiple sentences. In two cases, the editor used one Word comment “bubble” to house more than one comment. In these cases, each comment was coded independently.

The coding schema analyzed three factors. Each comment was coded for three different attributes.

  • Level of structure commented on (global, paragraph, or sentence)
  • Type of comment (direct or indirect)
  • Quality of comment (good or poor)

Besides coding the edited document, we reviewed the Morae recordings for each subject. The video was not coded, but was used as support for the findings on the comments. Our initial review of the Morae recordings found few actions specifically associated with making specific comments, such as scrolling up/down before making the comment. The recordings could have been useful for an overall analysis of how students approach editing, but that was outside the study's scope.

Within each of the attributes, the following set of codes was used.

Level of Comment Based on a top-down editing structure (Rude, 2005; Samson, 1993), the comments were coded based on the level of change they reflected: global, paragraph, or sentence. Within each of these three groups, the specific type of comment was also coded. Tables 1–3 show examples of each type of coding.


Whole document

Suggestions on document-wide consistency, structural, or organizational issues.

Section level

Suggestions on section-wide consistency, structural, or organizational issues.

Global word choice

Suggestions on wording problems that needed to be addressed throughout the document.


Need for specific content

Suggestions that pointed out that specific content either is missing or should be added to better develop the argument.

Revising content

Suggestions that assumed the content was present but needed to be reworked. The editor may be pointing out redundant information or asking for justification on the inclusion of the content in question.

Order of information

Suggestions that addressed the order of information within paragraphs.

Format and design

Suggestions that addressed the proper use of subheadings or indicated inconsistent formatting structure.


Suggestions that addressed the way information was presented: the editor suggests information delivery via lists, figures, and tables.


Suggestions that recommended the deletion of partial or even entire paragraphs owing to needless or redundant information.


Meaning and clarity

Suggestions that asked for a revision of the sentence for clarity or meaning. The editor may indicate the need for more information in order to have the sentence make sense in the context of the paragraph.


Suggestions that asked for grammatical and mechanical changes, such as punctuation issues, subject-verb agreement, or run-on sentences.

Revision of sentence

Suggestions that asked for a rewrite of an entire sentence, which often stemmed from poor flow or imprecise wording. Sentence revision comments differ from meaning and clarity comments in that suggestions for revision tend to deal more with stylistic issues.

Word change

Suggestions that asked for word changes. The author may have used a word incorrectly or imprecisely.


Suggestions that ask for deleting an entire sentence. This normally occurs when the sentence is redundant or unnecessary.

Type of Comment

The phrasing of the comment can affect how the author perceives it and how it influences the editor-author relationship (Dragga & Gong 1989; Eaton et al., 2008ab; Riley & Mackiewicz, 2003; Zimmerman & Taylor, 1999). The comments were coded as direct or indirect, with subclassifications that reflect the comment's content.

Direct Comments


Phrased as a question to ask the author's intention or solicits justification of the text.


Phrased to openly express the editor's intent and offers direct editorial observation. It instructs the author to make specific changes to the document.


Phrased to have no implication regarding a revision to the text. For example, the editor may be simply stating that the sentence or paragraph is well written.

Explaining edit

Phrased as a justification or rationalization of an editorial change.

Indirect Comments

Directive as question

Phrased in an interrogative fashion, although the intent and tone is that the author should make the change.

Directive as comment

Phrased as a superficially offhanded comment about the text, but with an intent and tone that the author should make the change.

Quality of Comment

Comments were coded as either good or poor based on how understandable or usable they were with respect to making text changes. As Willen (2004) mentions, editorial quality rests with the editor's ability to recognize problems and make clear, understandable suggestions for revisions. In many instances, the difference between a good comment and a poor one was a matter of clarity; in other instances, it was the editor's skills (or lack thereof) at identifying and explaining problems.

For this coding, comment quality was a binary assessment: good or poor.


Clear, direct, and, if followed, should produce positive results for the document.


Muddled, unnecessary, or ineffectual; a poor comment will not benefit the document and may in some cases degrade the quality of the document if followed. A poor comment was not always a wrong or misplaced comment, but the wording was not sufficient or appropriate for a writer to effectively act upon it.

We acknowledge that a finer grained evaluation of the comment quality would have been preferable; but for this exploratory study, the comments did not lend themselves to a finer grained coding. In addition, the final metric of comment quality would be how well it helps an author modify the text. Since this an editing exercise and the edits were not returned to an author, we were not able to make that judgment. Instead, as coders, we had to make that judgment for an imagined author. Finally, we were more concerned with the poor/not poor split. That judgment was easier to make since the poor comments tended to have little usable content. For example, if the comment said “this paragraph is vague,” how was an author suppose to revise the paragraph when nothing explains what aspects are vague?


Among the 11 sample assignments, 132 comments were made. Nine students finished the assignment to their satisfaction within the 45-minute time limit. Two students took a more heavy-handed approach and attempted to rewrite the document instead of offering suggestions to the authors. As a result, they only worked with the first 25% to 30% of the document before the end of the 45 minutes.

The number of comments per person ranged from 3 to 23. The lowest three (3, 4, and 6 comments) included the two students who rewrote the text rather, and one who made mostly single-word changes within the text. After these three students, the number of comments jumped to a range of 10–23, with 6 of the 11 students making 10–16 comments.

We did not test for statistical significance because of the small number of subjects. Instead, we tied the coding back to specific editing examples to help reveal some specific problems that should be directly addressed in teaching comprehensive editing.

“How to edit” articles and textbooks typically advise reading over the entire document before making any edit marks. In this study, five of the 11 students looked through the document first; however, four of those five spent only one to two minutes looking over the text. Obviously, this means they could not have accomplished more than briefly skimming it. One student spent almost five minutes reading the text. Three students (including the two who did a rewrite rather than an edit) used a very linear editing style that started at the top of the document and moved down with minimal scrolling. The other students scrolled up and down many times, obviously comparing between sections, before making comments. On the other hand, all students edited the document in a single pass; no one used the approach advocated by editing articles and discussed in class of performing multiple passes through the document and looking for specific items on each pass.

The Morae videos showed that most students were scrolling up and down throughout the editing process, so we assume they were working to maintain a mental image of the overall context of the specific paragraph they were editing.

Summary of the Coding

Of the 132 comments collected, the global level was the least commented on: only 11 comments (8%) were made on this level (Figure 1). Paragraph-level comments were the predominant level, with 81 comments (62%). There were 40 sentence-level comments (30%).

Figure 1. Comments by level

Global Level Six students (54%) made at least one global comment (maximum was three comments), for a total of 11 global comments (Figure 2). Within the global level, eight comments address section-level issues (Table 1). Although the number of section-level comments looks encouraging, half of them identified the need to expand the conclusion.

Figure 2. Global-level comments by type

Table 1. Global-level comment examples

Comment type Number Examples

Section level


Give an Executive Summary of the analysis. After the chart, you need to write a brief conclusion and give a recommendation. Sum up all the information that you just presented in the chart.

Whole document


You were too passive in your analyses of this book. Consider going back and being fair and concise in your evaluation.

Global word choice


You need to stay in the same tense. Is it past or present?

Excluding the global comments about the conclusion, there was no consistent placement of global comments within the text. Some of the comments, while global, tended to not provide usable guidance. For example, “Introduction is vague. Be more specific,” tells the author the introduction is vague without providing any feedback on why the editor feels it is vague or how to improve it.

Paragraph Level More than half the comments were paragraph-level comments. The breakdown by type is shown in Figure 3. Of the 68 paragraph comments, 53 directly addressed content or presentation (Table 2).

Figure 3. Paragraph-level comments by type

Table 2. Paragraph-level comment examples

Comment type Number Examples

Necessary content


  • List the criteria. Why make the reader wait?
  • This topic was not mentioned in your introduction at all. Either insert it into the introduction or delete it.



  • This is a lot of information to put into this report. Is this necessary for your audience?
  • Your language turns toward a lay audience in this paragraph. Consider adding more information about the book instead of making it so passive.



  • Use subheadings for each of the books.
  • Make white space between level 1 titles and the previous text smaller.

Order of information


  • Organization and layout should be first as it is in the evaluation section.
  • It seems more logical to discuss the chapter beginning before the end.
  • Should this paragraph be made to fit in the first paragraph?

Presentation of information


  • I would suggest a list.
  • You could also use a table to address some form of organization criteria.

Delete paragraph


  • I would assume that the only people who would be reading this analysis are the college faculty and staff members. They know the process they go through every year. Just get straight to your evaluation.
  • This section should be deleted since it isn't necessary and does not follow the report format.

Sentence Level More than half of the sentence-level comments dealt with sentence meaning (14 times) or asked for a rewrite to make the content clearer (9 times) (Figure 4). Table 3 shows that grammar was called into question only once, word choice 10 times, and sentence rewrites 9 times. This puts half of the sentence level edits at the copyedit level.

Figure 4. Sentence-level comments by type

Table 3. Sentence-level comment examples

Comment type Number Example



  • Not defined—should be defined in the second sentence if using the acronym.
  • Why was this a disadvantage?



  • Should circuits be plural here?



  • Too many sentences are beginning with “the book.”
  • This phrase sort of belittles the reader.
  • You should reword this sentence. It is unclear whether you mean the lack of important concepts was a disadvantage or the lack of color concepts was a disadvantage.

Word choice


  • Be consistent. In the first paragraph you were specific about which circuit course.
  • You should avoid using the word “good” since it is too vague.

Delete sentence


  • The background information is unnecessary.
  • This sentence should not be here because organization and layout are not discussed in this paragraph.

In general, based on the ratios of paragraph-to-sentence-level edits and the extent of comprehensive sentence-level edits, the students clearly remained focused on comprehensive editing issues and avoided simply performing a copyedit. On the other hand, because copyediting revisions were made in-line with the text and this study looked only at the comments, copyedits were not analyzed as part of the coding.

Type of Comment Hart (2005) writes that “the goal [of editing] is to constantly reinforce the notion that [the editor is] proposing rather than demanding changes” (p. 27). Mackiewicz and Riley (2003) discuss the importance of politeness and also mention that indirect comments are typically perceived as more polite. The comment's tone can determine the author's opinion of the editor: One harsh-sounding comment could cause the author to ignore the editor's work wholesale. Editorial comments can be divided into two main types: direct comments and indirect comments. With direct comments, the editor is directing the author to make a revision, while with indirect comments, a more passive approach is used, with the intent that the author will make revisions as the editor intended.

Direct comments made up 99 (75%) of the 132 comments (Table 4). Of those, 19 comments were posed as questions. Editors used indirect comments in 33 instances. Most students made at least one indirect comment; typically 10%-30% of the comments by each student were indirect. Explanations of edits occurred only 12 times. It seems that students considered their edits to be self-explanatory and not requiring justification. Most edit explanations were justifying deletions or word changes.

Table 4. Type of comment examples

Comment type Number Example

Direct comment: Directive


  • Insert a bulleted list of your criteria here.
  • Make white space between level 1 titles and the previous text smaller.

Direct comment: Question


  • There is not enough information given about the background. Why are these the chosen books to be evaluated?
  • How is the complexity reasonable for the students? Are the students able to follow the material with understanding?

Direct comment: Comment


  • These criteria for figures are not always covered exactly in evaluation.
  • The following paragraphs are just restating the tables.

Direct comment: Explaining edit


  • This is already stated in the introduction paragraph.
  • The word “problems” is ambiguous. You should use “exercises” to make your meaning more specific.

Indirect comment: Directive as question


  • Shouldn't this paragraph be in the criteria section?
  • Should this paragraph be made to fit in the first paragraph?

Indirect comment: Directive as comment


  • This sentence should not be here because organization and layout are not discussed in this paragraph.
  • A teacher for this course should know this already. It seems like you're talking down.

Quality of Comments Poor comments tended to be of minimal use to an author needing information about what to actually change, such as “repetitious” and “begin under Criteria.” They also included page layout comments that were not appropriate at this stage of editing, such as pointing out orphaned sentences.

A few students made most of the poor-quality comments (24 total) (Table 5). Three students made a total of 14 comments rated as poor. The student-by-student breakdown for those three is as follows: 5 comments with 4 rated as poor, 10 comments with 5 rated as poor, and 16 comments with 5 rated as poor. Also, the two students who did a rewrite had a total of seven comments, with five rated as poor.

Table 5. Quality of comment examples

Comment type Number Example

Good quality


  • The comments given as examples in tables 1, 2, and 3 of this article were all rated as good quality.

Poor quality


  • Repeats first paragraph.
  • Not needed.
  • Move this section up to the previous page.
  • Need stronger conclusion than tables.

Identifying Major Problem Areas

It appears that most of the students grasped the basic concept of how to perform a comprehensive edit and can make solid, constructive comments. Ignoring the students who tried to rewrite rather than edit the text, we found that most of the others produced a consistently high number of comments that were basically of good quality.

However, in addition to the ability to construct good comments, learning to edit includes developing the ability to spot major problems within the text. A group of editors working on the same document should produce a relatively consistent set of edits. At the very least, most (if not all) of the major problems within the document should be marked. That situation, however, was not evidenced in this study. In reviewing the comments, a lack of consistency in pointing out significant problems was noted. The specific problems found tended to not be the major problems, but rather a random collection of problems, which varied by student. To explore this further, we examined the comments made about four significant problem areas (Table 6).

Table 6. Consistency of identifying problem areas

Problem area Students who commented

Lists and graphics (The text had no lists or graphics. Much of the analysis lent itself to bullet lists and summary tables. Also, the quality of the book's graphics were mentioned, but examples were not given.)


Evaluation Criteria section
(This section was written as a single long paragraph containing multiple topics.)


Equivalent Circuit section (Other sections evaluated each book in a separate paragraph; this section combined the evaluation into one paragraph.)


(Conclusion was two tables, with no paragraphs interpreting the tables and recommendation.)


In general, most of the students missed any one specific problem. Fewer than half the students noticed each of these major problems within the text. One student noticed all four problems, and three others noticed three problems (interestingly, these three all missed the Equivalent Circuit section problem).


The results of the study have significance for teaching the comprehensive editing segments of a technical editing course.

We, as technical editing instructors, must direct students toward effective editing habits, such as a top-down editing style. The lack of global-level comments, when coupled with the failure to gain an overview of the document before beginning to edit, may reveal that they are not using a top-down editing style. Instead, students seem to be using a linear editing style of simply moving through the document from beginning to end. Additional support for that assumption came from the Morae video, which showed that only one student reviewed the entire document before starting to edit. The others all started reading/editing from the beginning without gaining an understanding of what the document contained. Granted, top-down editing is covered in essentially all editing classes, but perhaps the discussion can be combined with working through specific global-level examples to help the students contextualize its advantages.

It appears from the linear editing style and the fact that the majority of comments were at the paragraph level that the students focus on working with the text at the paragraph level rather than considering how those paragraphs fit together within a section or a document. A possible explanation is that students have had minimal exposure to writing text that is divided into sections. Almost all of their academic writing has been long prose paragraphs in texts with no headings, often composed in a single (or minimal number of) draft(s). In addition, students typically have not seen real edited documents. Their worldview of comments is the comments we, as instructors, make on their papers. Unfortunately, from a technical editing viewpoint, academic paper comments and technical editor comments are very different. Early in the semester, it may be worthwhile to discuss this difference in writing comments, explain the reasoning, and specifically point out how the goals of grading a student paper and editing a technical document differ.

A significant area of concern is the failure to consistently identify the major problems within the text. Fixing many of the problems identified in the students’ comments would not significantly improve the document's ability to communicate information. Willen (2004) suggests teaching guidelines for commenting to technical communication students, and that a specific protocol should be introduced so that they can comment effectively and with purpose. Also, it is hard to write or teach a guideline that addresses global-level issues without either being too vague to be practical (such as “ensure that the sections form a coherent whole”) or being written for a specific document type and context (proposals for company X). Use of editing checklists may help, although typically checklists seem to be used as a “have I done everything” reference consulted at the end of the editing project. More than teaching students to follow a checklist, course pedagogy needs to help the students internalize what would appear on a checklist. This is an interesting catch-22 for teaching, since helping students internalize a checklist requires repetition and working in class with documents long enough to contain global issues. Yet limited class time severely restricts students from working with documents of sufficient length.

Classroom Implications

The student editors seem to have a grasp of paragraph-level skills; Figure 3 shows that more than half of the comments dealt with content issues. Based on this factor, students seem to be able to evaluate content at the paragraph level, but not at a higher level. The students created comments aimed at the paragraph level, rather than creating comments that addressed the higher levels of the text and placing those comments into the context of the overall text. Or perhaps they had noticed the section-level problem, but had worded the editing comments at the lower level of giving direct “fix this” comments. This study was unable to discern the mental processes and logic the students used when deciding to write a comment. Discussions in which they have to justify why the comment was written as it was could prove beneficial, since they would expose how the student was actually seeing the problem. Editors and writers both need to understand the more general text problems, rather than just give or receive specific “fix it” comments. Unless the comment inspires the writer to see the bigger problem, the writer might not see the relevance of the comment.

Bereiter and Scardamalia (1987) point out that composing pushes the writer almost to the point of cognitive overload. We have no doubt (although this study did not measure it) that editors also work very close to cognitive overload. If the students suffered cognitive overload, it would have led to tasks being dropped—reducing the scope of problems looked for—and lowered editing quality. Emphasizing the need for multiple passes through a document (which none of the students did) should reduce overall cognitive workload. At some level, the lack of multiple passes may be related to students’ developing editing skills. Just as a beginning writer tries to write a single draft document, only experienced editors and writers understand the need for multiple drafts. Stressing multiple-pass editing for class assignments should also help address the problem of lack of consistency. With an edit pass focused on a smaller set of edits, the student should be able to spot problems more easily. How to teach multipass editing in a manner that motivates students to use it remains an open question.

In general, improving comment quality should itself enhance the editor-author relationship. The overall tone of the comments in this study would not hurt an editor-author relationship; none of them were phrased as an attack on or were demeaning to the author. But too many of the comments noted in this study only partially addressed the problem and would leave the author wondering what the editor really wanted. For example, a comment of “Should this paragraph be made to fit in the first paragraph?” fails to explain why the editor believes it should fit into the first paragraph. The need for a “payoff statement” that explains the reasoning behind the suggestion should be a part of learning to write comments (Eaton et al., 2008ab). A potential in-class exercise may be to show a paragraph with editorial comments and discuss problems with the comments and how to improve them. As a lead-in to discussing those comments, a discussion of what an author wants regarding a comment is helpful, since it will prime the students to evaluate the comments from an author's viewpoint.

Global Comments The type and quality of the global comments can provide an indication of a student's overall editing ability.

As instructors, we can examine the student's global comments to obtain a feel for how well the student is learning to view editing as a task performed on a text as an integrated whole. For example, most of the global comments noted in this study were specific to a section and never worked to connect sections. Likewise, we as educators need to consider whether the students’ comments are simply reflecting what is emphasized in class. Most of the global comments were about considering audience, but we need to question whether the students are really internalizing the need to consider audience or simply feel they must make some sort of comment about audience. The quality and wording of the comments can directly reflect this internalization. If the course has emphasized other areas that are problematical in the document but not reflected in the comments, we need to examine how the material is being taught to determine why.

Connecting the global comments with overall student performance, we found the students who made the global comments were the students who performed higher overall. At one level it would seem obvious that the better students would demonstrate a higher level view of editing. But, more important, this also provides a means of tracking students’ development as editors. Over the course of a semester, the number of global comments should increase. Students tend to split into two groups: those who see the problems but cannot explain them and those who still need help identifying the problems. Both groups are developing as editors but are at different stages in that development and need different types of help.

In the first group, there are students who are seeing the problems but need help communicating the suggested changes. Typically, they make comments that make sense to themselves but lack sufficient detail for someone else to act upon, or they know what the problem is but cannot figure out how to explain it. Either way, they need help in clearly saying what they want to say. The second group of students needs help grasping the higher level editing concepts. They seem to rely on their writing ability and give good paragraph-level advice, but fail to consider how to connect the paragraphs into a cohesive text. Here, there exists a forest-and-tree problem, with the student needing help to see that the forest matters as much as the trees. One exercise I have found that works is to do a paragraph-level outline of the text. The problem areas and lack of cohesion tend to jump out when each paragraph has been condensed to a phrase.


We are encouraged by the fact that most of the comments addressed global and paragraph-level issues, rather than sentence-level or copyediting issues. On the other hand, the quality of comments varied widely. Thus, we need to consider how to improve the students’ ability to develop comments that clearly communicate problems and potential solutions to an author. Of course, this should be an overall objective of any writing or editing class.

It seems that students understand how to make good comments; however, students are not consistent in their editing and cannot consistently spot major problems in a text. At one level, this may be because students are still developing skills as writers and editors. But this situation also means we as educators need to include more class work, both before students reach the editing class and during the editing class, on how to consider overall document structure and how to structure sections within a document. Editing skills are not divorced from writing skills, but rather are an essential extension of them.


The small sample size clearly prohibits making any general claims. Also, the work was done as a timed quiz. If given more time, some of the students might have written more comments or expanded on the ones they did write. However, since many of them finished before the time limit, that may or may not be a factor. A comparison with the same assignment done as take-home work should prove interesting.

Future Work

This study looked only at a snapshot of students’ editing skills. We need to examine changes in their commenting ability during the semester-long development of their editing skills. A comparison study of beginning versus end of the semester or editing unit would be helpful. Obviously, regardless of the starting point, both poor and good students should improve over time. However, we need to understand the actual progress sequence within that improvement so we can make pedagogical adjustments to increase it. We need a clearer picture of which skills a developing editor develops first and which lag.

We need to consider how to better teach editing for global issues and overall document structure. We need to better understand how to instruct writing high-quality comments and editing for larger structural (global) problems in a text. Students can identify paragraph-level problems but are very inconsistent with global issues.

Performing a comprehensive edit could, at one level, be considered making revision decisions about a text. If people are revising their own text, obviously they then make the change. When editing another person's text, rather than making the change, the editor must create a clear and useful comment explaining the problem and potential solutions. This brings up the question of whether or not an editor's ability to perform a comprehensive edit is related to that person's ability to revise texts. Thus, the editor faces two challenges. First, the problem must be identified and, second, the problem must be communicated to the author. Writing and revising texts at a whole-document and section level are skills students are still developing, but one that is essential to their future work as professional technical communicators. The sample size of students and the extent of this study were too small to be able to draw any conclusions about relationships between revising and editing ability, but this remains an important research question that should be pursued. The answers could help shape classroom discussions on topics such as organizing texts and writing style.


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About the Authors

Michael J. Albers is an associate professor at East Carolina University (ECU), where he teaches in the professional writing program. In 1999, he completed his PhD in technical communication and rhetoric from Texas Tech University. Before coming to ECU, he taught for 8 years at the University of Memphis. Before earning his PhD, he worked for 10 years as a technical communicator, writing software documentation and performing interface design. His research interests include designing information focused on answering real-world questions and online presentation of complex information.

John F. Marsella received degrees from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York (AOS, Culinary Arts) and Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama (B.A., English Literature; Creative Writing). He is currently studying biological sciences at the University of Colorado in Fort Collins, Colorado, pursuing of candidacy for a Professional Veterinary Medicine program.

Manuscript received 19 November 2009; revised 22 October 2010; accepted 5 January 2011.