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Collaborative Editing and the Power of Bad Examples

Cover of Eugene Znosko-Borovsky's How Not to Play Chess

When I was a teenage chess fanatic, the most useful book I read was called How Not to Play Chess. Rather than giving the usual collections of openings, endings or mid-game strategies, the author, Eugene Znosko-Borovsky (a name for a chess master if ever there was one), identifies the most common errors amateur chess players make and professional players don’t. This is the reverse of how we normally learn a skill, where we are taught what to do then later corrected on our mistakes. A similar process occurs with writing: students are taught what should be in an academic essay, technical report or whatever, they write it, then they are told what they did wrong. I’m not saying this is bad, but sometimes it’s good to turn it on its head and focus on the pitfalls.

To implement this in an academic writing class, I performed a rough 80/20 analysis, asking what are the mistakes that students make that result in the most cringeworthy moments in essays, such as clickbait titles, cliches, empty sentences (“We can see some similiarities and some differences”) excessively subjective writing, and rhetorical/personal questions (“Have you ever thought about …”). You could do something similar for business or technical writing. The next stage was to write an essay answering a question I had set on the course; it should be grammatically correct and properly cited but include as many of these sins as I could pack in. Here’s the first paragraph:

Have you ever thought about what makes something the right thing to do? Does it depend on your
character, your intentions or the effects of your actions? Philosophers have been thinking deeply for
millennia about this topic. One of the important philosophers is Immanuel Kant, whose categorical
imperative is a cool tool for solving moral problems even in today’s modern world. Today there is a brand
new phenomenon called lifehacking that can make your life much easier, but it can also sometimes be
unethical. Why is this? We can talk about white hat, black hat and gray hat hackers (Reagle, 2019), which
are terms from old cowboy movies. In my essay, I want to see if we can use Kant’s categorical imperative
to decide whether a hack is ethical or not. Joseph Reagle certainly thinks so, but is he right?

The learning technology part came in with how the students tackled it. Since I was already using Google Drive for drafting essays and giving realtime feedback, it seemed a natural choice; however, you could use any platform your students have access to that allows collaborative editing, such as Word Online, Bit, Notion or Evernote (currently in beta). I split the class into groups and gave each group access to a copy of the “crappy high school essay” (as I called it). Since this was an online class, I told them they had an hour to highlight and comment the problems, then put them in breakout rooms and let them get on with it, the advantage being that I could see what they were doing in Google Docs. In the following hour, I had them explain to the rest of the class why they though some sentences were bad and what they might do to improve them.

I won’t say that this exercise immediately eliminated the problems I’ve mentioned. Writing habits are as hard to change as any other habit, and students often come with years of experience of bad composition classes, so it’s hard for them to resist the temptation to end an essay with “Think about it” or “That’s the kind of world I want to live in.” But it certainly diminshed the cringe, and it meant that when grading their real essays, I could write things like “Remember that crappy high school essay?”

Note: This article is based on a talk given at the 2021 conference of the British Association of Lecturers in English for Academic Purposes.

Robin Turner
Latest posts by Robin Turner (see all)

Robin Turner

Until recently, EAP instructor and Moodle systems administrator at Bilkent University, Ankara, now Learning Technologist at the Global Banking School's London Greenford campus. Interested in educational technology and gamification/game-based learning.

2 thoughts on “Collaborative Editing and the Power of Bad Examples

  • Great post Robin !
    I seem to apply Pareto 80/20 to half the things in my life … and it’s surprisingly effective most of the time 🙂
    I really like the way your exercise works – and funny to think it tracks back to your chess days and a unique approach from the author 🙂


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