Sometimes, the weirdest activities are the most helpful.

A couple of days ago, I had my students try one of my favorite ways to understand something I’ve written: color-coding their drafts.

highlighting screen shot
This screenshot shows a color-coded version of one of my earlier blog posts. Green is personal experience; pink is a reference to scholarship; and blue is my own argument and ideas.

Students always see this as a weird activity, and I’m sure that some of them just do it and get it over with. But it’s quick (seriously, like ten minutes tops, usually!) and it can be really helpful if students just look at their drafts and understand what the colors are showing them.

Right now, we’re finishing the researching phase of our semester-long projects and getting ready to move into drafting. In yesterday’s classes, we spent the day working on their research proposals, a short paper in which they explain a number of aspects of their research project: the topic and how/why they selected it; the conversations they are seeing about their topics in their research; the sources that are most informing their opinions on the topic; the questions guiding their research or that they can address in their papers; their audiences; and their purposes for writing to those audiences.

That’s a lot to do in 2-3 pages, and it’s easy to forget parts of it, especially if you are really wrapped up in their research.

And it’s easy to be “really wrapped up in research” when most students associate writing about their research with reading and regurgitating information.

In class, I asked students to highlight every word of their draft with a certain color in their word processor. Each color stood for one of the requirements of the paper.

The goal here was, first, to make sure that students had something for every color listed. Then, to see if they were focusing more on one aspect of the assignment than others.

I also asked students four questions along with this activity:

  • What color do you see the most of? Do you think this is a good or bad thing for your paper?
  • What color do you see the least of? Do you think this is a good or bad thing for your paper?
  • What does this activity tell you about the content of your proposal?
  • What revisions can you make to improve your proposal?

On the whole, it seems like students were already heading in successful directions for their proposals. I was also surprised that few students said they saw organizational issues, but that may be because that’s usually what doing this activity shows me.

One of my favorite things about this activity is how flexible it is. I’ve done it with longer, research-based papers (and will be doing it again this semester) to help students see where they are summarizing, paraphrasing, or directly quoting a sources; following up with their own ideas or comments; or using examples from their personal experiences. Sometimes I do it to look specifically at summaries and paraphrases of sourced information verses direct quotations.

It could also be adapted to fit a lot of other kinds of activities. I also do reflections in all of my classes; it might be helpful to have students highlight general statements (such as “everyone feels differently about group projects”) in one color and personal statements (such as “I dislike group projects because. . .) in another color to see how well they are focusing on their personal experiences in the reflection.

I would also like to do this on some of my creative writing. I feel like it would tell me something about how I use exposition and dialogue. I think I would probably just see that I tend to rely on “telling statements” and I need to work on “showing” more.

But I buy into this activity because it’s just something I do. It genuinely helps me. And I really think it could help other writers and learners to understand their drafts and their writing, much better than reverse-engineering a draft ever worked for me.

Have you ever tried an activity similar to this in your writing? What works for you?