Scrutiny in Teaching Writing

A post at National Review, and some great follow up comments from readers, offers some great ideas about teaching writing:

The only way to address writing is to give line-by-line feedback. We cannot assume that students know what good writing looks like. Every time students pass a written assignment at any level with subpar writing, such poor performance is reinforced as acceptable and the poor writing ability become the next professor’s problem.

One of many astute reader comments notes:

Absolutely crucial, if we want students to improve, is that they be required to draft and revise. If they only receive comments — no matter how comprehensive and excellent — on already graded work, they simply won’t attend to them. Why bother if it isn’t going to make any difference on that essay? And they don’t always have the understanding to apply comments on one essay to the next; but if they revise *this* essay by the comments given, then it sparks some realization of how to apply those comments to other work.

Agreed.

This is the single most important thing that students need to learn about writing: every word counts.  Every single word is important and has to matter.  Every word has to be the result of planning and purpose.  Many of us can remember moments in our own school careers when we felt that teachers were being far too picky about our writing—that they were overanalyzing every little thing, every word and phrase, just trying to find something wrong with it.

But that’s exactly the way it needs to be done.  As I noted here recently, every word needs to be able to justify its existence, and anything word that can’t—any word that doesn’t clearly contribute to the whole—needs to go.  This is the only thing that keeps all writing from sounding like the disjointed ramblings of a solipsistic child, convinced that every raw thought is made of gold and needs to be presented to the world unpolished.

We seem to inherently think that great art is a natural thing, and not the product of long, agonizing revision in multiple stages.  We understand writing far more authentically when we realize that no worthy work was born like Athena, springing forth from the creator’s mind, fully formed.

We also need to discuss what to do for students whose writing is so illterately impenetrable that no amount of editing and revising will transform warped Elephant Man drafts into something that’s even passably smooth and recognizable.

But this excruciating scrutinizing is worth it.  This skill has great value in addition to its cognitive and compositional merits.  Those picky old teachers we complained about taught us that our writing can be better, that through conscious effort it can improve—a compositional lesson with an ennobling application in life.  In writing, as in life, we often throw whatever is convenient out there, with little thought about its long-term merit.  More deliberative action, in life and at the keyboard, would do us all some good.

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3 comments on “Scrutiny in Teaching Writing

  1. “This is the single most important thing…”

    The word “single” in this sentence is periphrastic.

    This, so early in your little lesson.

    You were saying?

  2. Should your initials here–DRP–be pronounced “Derp?” I can think of no trolling more onerous than anonymous pedantry. Thanks for pointing out the folksy accent in my casual colloquialisms.

  3. You deflect – deal with the issue. You write that “every word has to be the result of planning and purpose. ” (Which is a very wordy sentence to explain brevity.)

    You write at a freshman level.

    Another example: your response: “folksy accent in my casual colloquialisms” This is a very ugly use of language.

    Sorry to speak the truth – it must hurt.

    You probably don´t have the courage to publish this, and I understand. Had I written what you did, I would want to bury it.

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