My students must think I am crazy when I tell them that I read their drafts on first-come-first-served basis. For each of them, their draft is the highest priority. But I cannot see any other way of dealing with it. I cannot take on the responsibility of deciding that any particular student's work is more urgent than any other. I cannot even say that masters' drafts are more important than PhDs or the other way round. So I just say, first-come-first-served, and I don't read drafts during the weekends (unless specifically agreed with the student).
Now, a draft is a relative concept. Some drafts are five pages, some are forty. Some offer a coherent argument, some are notes and quotes. The latter are the hardest to assess. What can I say beyond: “Carry on”? A full masters thesis draft – 20,000 words – takes anything between three and twenty hours to read and comment on. This year, I have six masters students, and if I read two drafts of each – well, some simple calculation. Further, I have PhD students who insist on producing their chapters drafts in sync with the masters, before the end of term. A chapter is also usually about 20,000 words, and it can also take any number of hours to read. Some students have complained that I don't give them enough feedback. When a chapter is really good, I typically say so, possibly offering some minor comments on structure or suggesting an additional source. But I can imagine that a student who has spent weeks upon weeks on a chapter is disappointed to merely hear: “Excellent – now go and write the next chapter”. Fine, I will give more feedback (there is always something you can say even about the most brilliant chapter), but it takes more time. Hmm... that's what I am paid for.
Of course I cannot read drafts ten hours non-stop. It would be unfair toward the student whose draft I read last on the day. I'd either be too grumpy and find faults or too tired to make sensible comments. Which means that I need breaks every now and then, and occasionally I need to eat. For breaks, I go out and do some gardening. It's tempting to stay in the garden and never return to those lovely drafts, but I have fantastic self-discipline. Yet finally I reach a stage when I don't understand what I am reading anymore, and then I need to stop and re-read the draft the next day to make sure I haven't missed anything. And correct the typos in my comments.
By the time I have read all lined-up drafts there will be more coming. And I write back to the student to acknowledge that the draft has arrived, saying: “You are now number three in line. I will deal with your draft as soon as I can”.
Mind, I love my job!