Commenting on drafts would be much easier if I could stop looking for patterns where they obviously aren't or seeking reason behind random sloppiness:
Why did this student put quotation marks around two titles but not the third? Did the rest of the quotation marks elope with the ampersand?
Why is the character's name capitalized roughly three-quarters of the time? Did it find the stress of being a proper noun so exhausting that it had to lie down and rest for a paragraph or two before standing upright again?
Why would a student consistently place commas precisely where they are least necessary? Or did he load a shotgun with commas, point it at the paper, and pull the trigger?
And why does the next paper eschew commas in favor of dashes? Who does she think she is--Emily Dickinson?!
I look for patterns so that I can diagnose the problem and prescribe an antidote (so maybe I should be reading through a stethoscope), but lately I find myself thwarted. I think I see the beginning of a pattern (he's putting commas after 'and' and 'but') but then it falls to pieces (wait, here's an 'and' surrounded by commas, and here's a 'but' with no punctuation whatsoever).
My mistake, I think, is in assuming that students are always making conscious choices about their writing and if I just uncover the flawed reasoning behind those choices, I'll be able to fix it. But what if reason has nothing to do with it? What if they're too tired or busy or drunk or distracted to notice little details like punctuation and capitalization? What if they simply don't care?
I'm seeing a constellation of errors and trying to connect the dots, but I fear that they're as random as the stars and equally inaccessible. (So maybe I should be reading through a telescope.)