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.