Appreciating the Writing Process — Mistakes, Wordiness, and All

In the past few days, I’ve read a few of those head-shaking “you won’t believe how poorly college students write” essays, which always make me uncomfortable.

20120713-171340.jpgThey typically quote student “mistakes” out of context — maybe the assignment was to brainstorm or take risks, rather than produce polished gems; maybe the student is not a native English speaker; maybe the assignment is more complex than communicating a safety warning to somebody holding a book of matches.

I regularly share with my students a story about how, during my first semester of full-time teaching, I wrote the word “redundant” several times in the margins of a student’s paper, and offered her the chance to revise. When she returned the assignment, she had inserted the word “redundant” into the paper at each point.

I tell the students that I consider that my fault –not only because I didn’t check to make sure she understood what I meant by “redundant” and what I meant by “revise,” but also because I hadn’t created a learning environment where she felt comfortable asking for clarification.

Making mistakes is part of practice, and any healthy writing process will include mistake-riddled early drafts full of ambitious paragraphs that trail off, lofty incoherency that implodes under its own weight, and bland summary filling up gaps by agreeing completely with long quotations from accepted authorities. All this is expected. I do it myself.

For any complex writing task, success emerges as a result of a painstaking process of cutting away the deadwood, and encouraging little shoots of insight wherever they may be found.

I recently came across a blog post by a corporate information guru who claims college essays are ruining the economy. The body of his blog post does not follow through on the alarmist headline blaming the college essay, so I won’t link to his original — you can find it on your own, if you wish. The examples he used were not from college essays, but an assortment of blog assignments, obscure EULA language and corporate emails. He pointed to increasingly long page counts of academic essay requirements to argue that students are rewarded for wordiness.

As a college writing teacher, I assure you that I don’t reward students who submit pointless, wordy essays. I also ask them to write in genres that particularly emphasize brevity, such as journalism, hypertext, and technical reports. But some writing tasks require more than the ability to summarize efficiently.

Let’s consider a book of matches. If you need to know how to light a match, then it’s hard to imagine improving on “close cover before striking.” But if you are instead are exploring whether a father should be legally responsible for property damage caused by the book of matches he gave to his son to play with, the answer would require more complex interpretation, more persuasion, more nuance, and more words.

By all means, after you have explored the boy’s claims that he himself didn’t light the matches, it was a bully who stole the matches from him who did the lighting, and you explore the alleged bully’s claims that both kids were equally responsible, go ahead and write up a one-sentence version for the tl;dr crowd. But you won’t end up with a clear answer to summarize until you have gone through the rigorous process of gathering and working through evidence — the kind of process that college students practice when they write essays that are longer, more detailed, and on more obscure topics than they are used to writing.