Sunday, December 5, 2010

Teaching Writing and Editing Writers

My students' blog assignment has put in a strange position, caught somewhere between their teacher and their editor. My original "training" was as a professional writer, and part of that training was learning how to edit. I edited our program's newspaper. I've worked as an editor before. I've edited a book. I can't say I ever enjoyed that work, nor that I was any good at it. So it wasn't with much heartbreak that I gave up heavily editing my students' work when I became a teacher. 

But now that I am the administrator for the blog my students are contributing to, I have an old, familiar urge to edit. The missing (or extra) comma. The sentence fragment. The misused word. All of it. I just want to go in a fix it. Or, going further, fiddling with a sentence here or there to improve it. Or cut a word or sentence that doesn't work or fit. I know better, and I have promised myself and my students that, outside of formatting, I wouldn't change their work.

Before you get upset about my impulse to "improve" the students' writings, know that that is the role of the editor. When I worked as a paid intern for an online newspaper, I was shocked and devastated when I got my first writing assignment back from the editor completely marked up and changed. This was the first time I had really had my writing critiqued in this way. I dutifully made the changes, recognized that the writing was better (but at that point, I also thought what I had written was fine, too), and tried to grow some thicker skin. 

The editor is a thankless job, because the byline always goes to the author. But what I try to make my students realize is that most works of writing they read are the result of a long process that often involves a lot of people. While we do peer review and revise drafts of our essays, I can't get the students to really edit their own or even their peers' work. Part of it has to do with the idea of plagiarism; these kids have been taught to only submit their own, original work, lest they face some very severe consequences. But why can't or won't they collaborate in order to make their writing better? Is it because I haven't provided a model for them to follow?

And, what is my role in the collaboration? Where is the balance between coaching my students to improve and actually getting in there doing the dirty work of revising and improving a students' writing. And would I be doing it for them or with them? This blogging assignment has forced me to think about how much work I still have to do in figuring out how to best help my students become better writers.


  1. You said "Is it because I haven't provided a model for them to follow?" Some editing pitfalls can be avoided by instituting a style guide and enforcing it with your writers. The rule regarding the placement or non-placement of the last serial comma varies in each style guide. There's nothing inherently wrong about either usage. This is especially true when there's no style guide governing a collective of writers.

  2. I'm not sure if this is a side issue or part of the main issue but this looks important: "Part of it has to do with the idea of plagiarism; these kids have been taught to only submit their own, original work, lest they face some very severe consequences."

    I think we need to move beyond rules about plagiarism and start talking about principles, about writing AS collaboration, or at least about the Romantic (yes, with capital R) view of the author and how he (for he is primarily a he) lives on in law and college policy while not really existing in a meaningful sense in the practice of writers, and so on.

    Maybe this will enable students to develop their writing and their judgement. And for better students, those who go on to academic careers or other careers as writers, will give them some tools to deal with the problem of "originality" and the value of one's written work.

  3. I love how it is often my off-handed comments that become the most telling about the current situation in higher education. Collaboration isn't the same thing as plagiarism, obviously, but for many students, the lines have been badly blurred. Perhaps if I did an assignment where the grade a student received was the grade given to the other student's paper, the student they were supposed to be editing/collaborating with. It would be in the student's best interest to help the other student write the best possible paper. It would also encourage students to pair off with the best writers in the class, but that's just me being cynical.

    I like the idea of a style guide, especially if we develop it together as a class, discussing audience, purpose, etc. I wish I could also find a really good example online showing students how brutal the editing process can be for a professional writer.


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