Michael Bracken offers practical tips to new writers. Later this week I’ll begin teaching Seton Hill’s “Intro to Literary Study” class again… it’s often the first class in which the English majors get a taste of what it means to write fiction for a college-level class. That means I emphasize basic stuff such as how to punctuate quoted speech, and the difference between “correcting the mistakes your teacher has circled for you” and “improving a draft through revision.” But Bracken offers an even more basic set of gripes.
New writers often ask questions about how to format manuscripts, and established writers and editors provide a variety of opinions about the “right” way and the “wrong” way to do it. I happen to prefer the format established post-typewriter/pre-personal computer, but I realize time, technology, and training changes everything.
I’m no Luddite. I worked for a large book and periodical publisher that was accepting electronic manuscripts back in the 1980s before Macintoshes existed and when electronic manuscripts arrived on 8″ Wang disks that truly were floppy! I worked with and taught GenCode, a precursor to today’s generic mark-up languages (HTML, SGML, etc.)., and today I write, edit, and design printed and electronic publications using a variety of word processing and page layout programs on both Macintoshes and Windows-based PCs.
So allow me a moment to play crabby editor while I bitch about a few of the most common mistakes I see writers make when preparing electronic manuscripts, and my complaints have nothing to do with font or typesize.
I’ve got a pounding headache and I’m typing this while stretched out on
my sickbed in the basement (where my wife banishes me every time I get
ill). I’m sure this isn’t a relapse of the pneumonia that laid me low
last term, but I’m not at all happy that this is hitting me on the last
weekend before the spring term starts. When I’m sick, the part of my
brain that does objective evaluation shuts down, so I’m no good at
grading papers or figuring out whether this assignment should be worth
5% or 10% of the course grade. But I can philosophize and ruminate. I
suppose this will help me deal with the anxiety I feel over getting
After students have had the chance to revise a few essays, I ask for a show of hands as I ask a series of questions…
- “How many of you find it easy to fix all the mistakes I mark?”
- “How many of you find it easy identify and fix errors in the passages that I haven’t marked?”
- “How many of you prefer to have someone else catch the mistakes for you?”
- “Now imagine you are the editor of a magazine, and you have two submissions on your desk. Both are about the same quality. One has typos in almost every line, and you’ll have to spend hours getting it ready for publication. The other submission has no glaring technical errors, and looks like it would be ready to go almost immediately. Which one would you publish?”
I’ve done that in the past, as part of my attempt to get students to pay attention to, and take advantage of the opportunity when their professor gives them the opportunity to revise a paper. I first thought I should blog Bracken’s essay because I wanted my
students to be able to read it, but now I’m not so sure.
One of the biggest frustrations about being a writing teacher is that many students don’t take full advantage of the opportunity to revise. If a student’s draft is patchy and full of typos, then instead of spending my time engaging with the student’s ideas, I spend it circling typographical errors and noting missing words, and I never get to spend that deep time talking about a student’s ideas. (Yes, I can add a few lines after the final draft comes in, but I know students are most motivated to learn from detailed comments when they are working on a final draft. If they have, in their minds, “finished” a paper, I have to shift into a much more general “Next time, try doing more of this and less of that,” rather than actually carrying on a conversation with them about the ideas they have raised.
But I worry that perhaps my desire to get students to value the revision process has instead come across as an attempt to tear them down.
Making the shift to college can be shocking. Many who have a talent for language have coasted through high school English — where teachers rewarded students for using fancy vocabulary words, for being able to summarize the plot of the literary works they read and for demonstrating an ability to apply the stories to their own lives. For many students who are just starting out college, only the dumb or lazy students have to work hard to earn good grades; the ones who are “bright” and “smart” get those good grades naturally. So they can be shocked to find out that being “bright” doesn’t earn you many points, and even “smart” kids have to work to earn a B.
This lesson is not a particularly pleasant one to teach. Professional editors have every right to be frustrated by newbie authors whose simple mistakes waste time. As a teacher, it’s my job to help get those newbies ready for the real world, where crabby editors don’t always have time to be nice when they say “no.” One of my teaching personas is the
crabby editor, though I try to reserve that for the upper-level
students who should know better.
I thought initially that Bracken’s
blog entry would permit me to say, “See, it’s not just me being crabby,
here’s a successful author and influential editor saying the same
things I’m trying to tell you.” But instead, I think I’ll try to bring this idea out of the class via a discussion, where students call out ideas and I write them on the board.
Since it’s a spring class, the students will already have had a chance
to notice what their first semester was like, though they may not have
had the chance to reflect on what their experiences mean. It would be faster to start with a list of dos and dont’s, but rather than giving them a list of orders that they are compelled to follow, it would be much better if they could think of me as a resource for how to solve a problem.
This kind of self-criticism is particularly challenging to students who haven’t yet taken a creative
writing class, and therefore haven’t really experienced what a solid,
meaty critique can do for their writing (once they get over the initial
blow to their egos). But if I try to force this lesson on them
before they’re ready to hear it, they might get disillusioned, and they may not give me their best work thereafter (for fear that I’ll respond too harshly).
Finding the right balance between crushing realism and uncritical praise is important enough that it’s worth taking the time to do it carefully. So this year I will try drawing some collective wisdom out of the students’ shared experiences.
When I went to grad school, I imagined that I would teach much the same way as I was taught — via lectures. But students today are far more connected with each other than students were 20 years ago. My students are skilled at interacting with each other, and they regularly draw on their group communication skills to get all sorts of personal and social tasks done.
I feel like I’m doing my best work as a teacher when I find that the knowledge is already there, in bits and pieces, distributed across the student network. The students may have never tried to connect the dots on their own, though they may have generated some tentative conclusions based on the parts of the big picture that they can see.
And the big picture that I need to see is that I’ve got to face the reality that I’m sick again, and that until I get better, I won’t be able to make any meaningful progress on all the obligations I’ve put on hold.
Okay… now for some rest.