February 12, 2014
My class today revolved around learning how to peer edit papers. These students are not professional writers, and some of them have had to take the class before, so aside from myself and the Writing Center, I want them to feel comfortable asking each other for help. The lesson, then, revolved around teaching them how to critique and take criticism.
It was simple enough. First, find something in the paper that works. It could be the dialogue, the story itself, or even just the title, but it must be genuine praise, not just cheerleader fluff. Then, you need to point out an actual shortcoming in the paper. And be specific. Is the ending vague? Does it try to cover too much ground? Finally, end with a second positive.
While this may feel like some sort of self-help seminar, the purpose is to make the writer receptive to criticism. Hearing that there are good things in the essay and not just hings to fix is essential, especially for insecure writers. Writing is one of the most stressful activities a person can partake in, so knowing that some parts of the work work is essential. A person can get friend focusing on the things that need to be changed, the mistakes that slipped through the first and second drafts, and even just the amount of work needed to polish an essay for submission. I know.
That little bit of positive feedback can make the difference becoming bitter at the process and learning to enjoy the small victories.
And I’m not asking for too much when I ask students to find something good in each others’ essays. Rarely will anyone find a piece of writing so unbearably bad, so insulting to the senses, that at least one positive thing can be said about it.
In my life, I’ve come across two. I’ve read hundreds of essays, countless books, and I’ve only found two.
The first was actually a student essay back in college. To say that the essay offended my sense of storytelling by taking a story and purposefully twisting the reader’s brain around metafiction with all the grace and subtlety of a rocket-powered brick to the face would be an understatement. Chaos theory states than an infinite amount of monkeys writing at an infinite amount of typewriters will, given an infinite amount of time, write the complete works of William Shakespeare. This essay, however, was a twelve monkey, half hour job. It’s the only time I’ve ever thrown a piece of writing. Its aura offended me.
The second was a novel I had to edit in order to compensate for a small car accident I caused. Instead of having to get insurance involved, the other driver asked me to edit her novel. It took me a good half hour to get past the first page. It was a mess, both grammatically and structurally. The story began with two retired men who won the lottery and drove around the country getting into small adventures. It ended with said men recruiting a dog groomer, a bartender, and assorted folks into a black ops mercenary outfit running operations in Colombia. It may sound like the kind of thing that could work on paper, but it’s not. Not by a long shot. The story would have made more sense if alien ghosts had appeared midway through to explain how reality was being melted by a giant toddler with a magnifying lens.
Being a reader is more than just editing and finding mistakes. It’s about providing a little support to go along with those criticisms.
Except for the odd writing like those two mentioned above. Writing that bad needs to be burned and buried at a crossroads.
For now, let’s enjoy the sights and sounds of The Daily Show destroying the GOP on something that shouldn’t be this difficult.