Sideways Editing

When revising writing that I’ve labelled “awkward,” students have a tendency to practice what I call “sideways editing.”  Instead of swapping out their initial phraseology for something more fluently developed, they rearrange the existing parts into an equally awkward sequel.

Here’s an example that I now use as an illustration in class:

First draft: The article had good ideas in it and related them to us good. 

is not substantially improved as

Second draft: The article’s ideas were good and they were related to the readers in good ways too.  

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The Cold Darwinian Erasers of Editorial Evolution

As writers, we wield the cold Darwinian erasers of editorial evolution.  Scrutinizing the compositional gene pool, we are a vehicle of natural selection, finding the weakest words and the unfit phrases.  We exercise the instruments of the delete keys at our fingertips, and thus remove the dead weight that threatens to hold back the success of the prose herd.  Our task is nothing less than to kill off those unlucky aspects of our writing that simply aren’t strong enough to deserve propagation. 

This should be the attitude of anyone who writes: student writers all seem to be born with a case of excessive compassion for every word they write, even the ones so obviously inferior that they can do no more than infect the surrounding writing with their ineptitude.  The mark of a good writer is the evolved ability to remove themselves from their emotional attachment to their own writing and do what must be done: the execution of those elements which simply aren’t worthy of seeing the light of day. 

This task is hard enough to develop in ourselves, much less in student writers.  Yet it is necessary for growth as someone with any talent for writing at all.  It’s been my experience as a teacher that most students can write far better than they do, but they hold back because the more intense effort needed to justify the existence of every word is more work than it’s worth: a chatty first draft is usually “good enough.” 

One thing that often helps students develop a more critical mindset, however, is discussing with them the rather morbid metaphor I opened with above.  Kids really respond to that.  Today in class I advised students to delete all of the extraneous on’s from their writing.  Someone joked that I was “killing all the poor little on’s!”  I replied, “I plead guilty to the crime of prepositional genocide!”  A hearty round of applause erupted.  Disturbing, possibly, but productive. 

 

On Teaching Writing Vs. Teaching Literature

A couple of notable essays have appeared recently about focusing on teaching writing, as opposed to literature.  Here are a few money quotes, starting with the original piece in Salon:

It’s hard to blame anyone for not wanting to teach writing, which, while it might not involve manual labor or public floggings, is hard, grueling work. Often it demands maximum effort for minimum payoff, headache-inducing attention to detail, wheelbarrows full of grading, revision after revision, conferences with teary-eyed students. Who wouldn’t prefer to talk about books or stories or poems? Problem is, the hard, grueling work to be done doesn’t go away. Ask any college composition teacher.

 A reaction from another teacher, quoted at Instapundit:

Teenagers, already a cauldron of emotions, rather enjoy boiling over onto paper, as long as authenticity trumps accuracy or analysis. They “reflect” all the time, mostly on their cell phones in indecipherable shorthand. Building, supporting, and defending a thesis – that’s much less fun. Teaching them to how do it, and grading the results, is much harder work as well.

Others have chimed in, but you get the idea: teaching literature is fun and easy, whereas teaching writing is painful. 

It’s absolutely true.  Continue reading