On teaching (and grading) writing

santababyI found this article on Slate the other day.  All you really need is the title, and maybe an understanding of how Slate works; the article is called “The End of the College Essay” and the page header itself says “College papers: Students hate writing them.  Professors hate grading them.  Let’s stop assigning them.”

In other words, pure Slate-style contrarianism and click bait.  Naturally, I posted it, with the heading “I’ll just leave this here…”  Why did I do that?  Well, mostly just because I’m a jackass, but I enjoy a shitstorm once in a while, and between what was going on in the comments on the article and on the author’s Twitter feed and the higher-than-most-folk number of college professors and middle school/high school teachers I have on my Facebook friends I figured I might be up for something interesting.

And then I got stupid and started thinking about it.

Here is how to learn to read:  put words in front of your face constantly, until you can read.    Babies can do it in a few years.  Most American humans have managed it on some level or another by third or fourth grade; everything else after that is just refinement and leveling up and sooner or later you’re wondering if Finnegan’s Wake is really crap like you think it is or of there are just that many people who are that much smarter than you.(*)

A competent adult can teach himself to read in a foreign language (note that in this case I mean “read” simply as “decoding,” and yes, I’m aware how much I’m oversimplifying) in a couple of days of sustained effort.  It took one class period for my college Hebrew professor to get a roomful of kids reading Genesis out loud, and most of us hadn’t been Bar Mitzvahed.

Here is how to learn to write:  Do everything in “learn to read,” then write constantly until you get it.  Reading is easy; writing well is enormously complicated.  No one can do it well before adulthood regardless of how much practice you’ve had; if you’re told you’re a “good writer” before you are in your mid-twenties at the earliest what the speaker actually means is “…for your age.”  Furthermore, however good you may think you are as a writer now, you almost certainly think that anything you wrote more than a year ago sucks, which means that what you’re writing now sucks too.

You will never, never, never reach a point where your own writing is good enough, if you actually want to be a good writer.  You will never reach a point where that urge to revise and tinker just goes away.  Being a writer is learning to live with good enough, because otherwise you’d never finish anything.

One can easily imagine, I hope, that this makes teaching writing an incredibly difficult challenge, and teaching writing well an even greater one.  Teaching writing well to people who do not want to learn to write?  Just kill me.

So I’m sympathetic to college professors who throw up their hands and say “Fuck it; they’re never going to learn how to do this right; we should just stop trying.”  Because, believe me, I get it.  And I get those essays when they’re twelve, when all I can do is marvel at the fact that the child who has just supposedly tried to write something has been in school— I’ve been there!  I watched!– for several years at the least and can write an entire page of prose without one single comma or period.

Teaching writing is really goddamn hard.  There’s a reason I’m a math teacher, folks.  Grading writing is even harder than teaching it!  Because here’s the thing– if you’re not willing to put in the time with that red pen, painstakingly pulling apart all the mistakes and– and this is so, so tremendously important– showing the writer how to fix them— and preferably with at least one face-to-face actual by-God conference about the piece– you are probably wasting your time and theirs.  The best writing teacher I ever had was a guy named Scott Alexander.  He would write more on our essays than we wrote in the essays.  But I’ll be damned if he didn’t get me thinking preemptively while I was writing for him– and eventually when I was writing for anyone– about what he might have to say, and I found myself fixing issues with my papers before I even gave them to him– which is, of course, exactly what he wanted.  I took at least three different classes with the guy at IU– none, I should point out, that were strictly composition courses– and all of them involved multiple essays, all written in multiple drafts.  I cannot even imagine how much time Dr. Alexander put into grading essays.  But, at least for me, it worked.  The guy beat good writing into my head.

(Was I a good writer when I left his class?  Nope.  But I was better.  Much, much better.  It took a while to get out of the habit of constant parenthetical footnotes that he got me into– by accident, I’m sure– but I was still much better.)

If you don’t have time to do that, you don’t have the time to teach writing.  Which is fine; not everyone does, and it’s not like there aren’t a million different ways to come up with grades for a class.  But I feel like if you’re giving writing work to undergraduates (or high school students, or middle school students, or whatever) then you need to keep in mind that they are not going to be good writers yet, because it is impossible for them to be good writers yet.  So you need to keep that in mind when assigning your work.

If you don’t want to take the time to grade essays properly, then yes, you might think about not assigning essays.

Comp classes have their place, but they’re limited; they teach you basic writing skills precisely so that you can write for a reason when you need to.  They aren’t a substitute, on their own, for writing in the humanities/arts/sciences/technical fields/whatever; we need both.

(Left as an exercise to the reader, or you can just scroll through the archives, is why the hell anyone thinks there’s much of a point to standardized testing of writing, where the writer doesn’t have time to write and the grader sure as shit doesn’t have time to grade.  It’s artificial and broken from the start and it should die.)

(* Both.)

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Luther M. Siler

Teacher, writer of words, and local curmudgeon. Enthusiastically profane. Occasionally hostile.

5 thoughts on “On teaching (and grading) writing

  1. Steps to being a good writer:
    1. Read a lot.
    2. Write a lot.
    3. Listen to constructive criticism. If someone says it’s broken, fix it.
    4. Read more.
    5. Write more.
    6. Whatever you think is the cutest, most precious line, that’s the one you have to get rid of.
    7. Forgive yourself for it not being perfect.
    8. Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances, write anything that even remotely resembles Finnegan’s Wake.


  2. As a writing tutor, these words about the difficulty of teaching students to write rung true and a little challenging, as well. Excellent read!


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