I am often required to give students “helpful feedback” on their writing. I mark missing commas or misspelled words in red ink. I circle the occasional awkward phrase. The students want to know why they receive a B+ or an A- rather than a perfect 100%, so every red mark on the page is a potential excuse, something I can show them to justify each and every point deducted. One must also look busy. If I am being paid to teach and to evaluate their work, I must give some tangible sign of services rendered.
I fear, however, that these marks are really doing the students a disservice. They give the illusion that their bad writing would become good writing if they were to insert the missing commas and fix the spelling mistakes. Grading a stack of these papers, however, is agony not because of missing commas and spelling mistakes but because the writing is simply and thoroughly bad. To become good the whole thing would need to change. The tone would need to be different, the word selection throughout would need to be simplified, and every sentence would need to change its rhythm. These things are not easily indicated in red ink. Ultimately, the student would benefit most by knowing what in the world he is talking about. This knowledge of the subject matter is something I have tried to give him over the course of the year, but in many cases, I have apparently failed, and this failure makes me despair that I can give it to him now in the margins of his paper.
I can understand the frustration of the student who does not know how to write and wants to improve. “Tell me what I need to change—specifically.” So this is my attempt as a teacher to give four definite recommendations. Unfortunately, the changes that I think will help the most are changes to the student’s deeper habits of life rather than changes to one specific paper:
Read: The habit of reading widely and reading attentively trains the mind in the rhythms of good English. In order for reading to improve writing, however, one cannot simply read indiscriminately. One must seek out the best examples of English prose that one can find and attempt to develop a sense of judgment so as to know better and better what counts as “the best.” C.S. Lewis is an easy recommendation for someone just beginning. One must further read with attention to the nature of the writing itself rather than reading only for the content. Look carefully at how these authors craft their sentences. Why this word rather than one that you might think of? Why construct the sentence with these clauses? Notice in particular the sentences that make you stop or stand out in your memory. What makes them so striking?
Learn: The main obstacle in the path of student writing is the sheer lack of anything to say. Students often know very little about the subject that they are assigned and they have thought very little about the bit that they know. Often because they have not completed the previous assignments or paid attention in class. Often because they are simply young and inexperienced. They are asked to write three pages, and they torture themselves to generate mere verbiage just to fill the space. In order to correct this, you must have an abundance of things to say, much more than you could possibly fit into the limits of the paper. In order to have an abundance of things to say, you must try to learn about the subject and spend significant time reflecting on what you think about it. This brings us back to the first step: the habit of intelligent reading stocks your mind with a much wider range of knowledge than could possibly come from your own direct experience and teaches you how smart people have thought about it in the past.
Write: Everyone knows that improvement in a skill comes primarily through practice. Writing regularly without the stress of a graded assignment gives you the chance to stretch your wings and experiment. As a student myself, I noticed a dramatic change in my whole attitude toward writing when one of my mentors encouraged me to begin writing every day. I was no longer sprinting the night before to produce an unaccustomed volume of words out of thin air. Instead, I gained the habit of articulating what I had to say regularly in much smaller doses. I started to have fun.
Get Help: Ultimately, my own writing took the most important turn when I received an enormously generous gift of time from someone else, and this last step is not something one can easily replicate at home. Lt. Col. Ted Higgs, who taught writing at West Point, invited me to his house while I was a graduate student at the University of Kentucky. I needed to polish an essay for my application to the doctoral program in philosophy, and he offered to help. We sat across the table from one another in his beautiful library under a hand-made chandelier that he had commissioned while serving in Italy. He asked me to bring two printed copies of the piece and two red pens. He had me read each sentence out loud, and we would pause at every period to talk about how the sentence could be perfected. Was it really what I wanted to say? Was that specific word the best word? Did the cadence of the sentence fall properly at the end? We would consult several dictionaries. We would consult Fowler’s. We would consult Strunk and White. Ten pages took all Saturday.
To this day, I am still staggered by just how kind and generous this was, and I have tried to pay it forward. I would rather spend ten hours with a student who genuinely wants to improve his writing and is willing to put in the work than ten hours scribbling marginal notes into a stack of freshmen papers. (I have seen those marginal notes dumped promptly into the wastebasket by the door of the classroom.) So I make the invitation to my writing students, but only one or two have taken me up.