This may be a short post today, I’m afraid: my blogging program just upgraded to new software, and every single page of the administrative side of this site is now blindingly, glaringly, is-that-my-composition-page-or-have-I-died-and-am-approaching-heaven white, with rather pale blue type. A pale yellow background in parts varies the page where one reviews comments, but overall, the effect is like trying to write at high noon in the middle of Death Valley without a hat.
Oh, the new software has benefits, too. But seriously, I may have to don sunglasses to use it.
So let’s proceed quickly to today’s lesson, before I give in to the urge to run straight toward that bright light to embrace my long-gone loved ones and run smack into my monitor.
Back when I was teaching at a big university (I would give you the hint that it was a big football school whose mascot was a vicious carnivore, but that would hardly narrow it down, would it?), I had a policy that my students could always rewrite their term papers with an eye to improving their grades, even if the class was not a writing class per se.
Why did I allow and even encourage this? Three reasons: first, few students who were not taking writing classes had much opportunity to revise their work — and thus kept making the same kinds of argumentative mistakes without learning how to correct them. Since I required that they submit the revision within a couple of weeks, in theory they would be better equipped to argue by the time the next term paper was due.
Second, as anyone whose pages have passed under my editorial pen can tell you (sometimes shaking with shock), I’m an inveterate asker of follow-up questions. By revising the paper, the student could address these questions and end up with a better understanding of the essay topic.
(Or a related one. Because I had occasionally been known to throw an argumentative curveball — thank goodness I grew out of THAT — I would routinely ask my students to turn in the original, commented-upon paper along with the revision, so I wouldn’t scrawl in the margins of the new, “Why on earth have you gone of on THIS tangent?”)
Third — are you sitting down? — many of my students were turning up at college apparently without having ever been taught some of the basic rules of grammar.
If my marginalia on his papers was the first time a college sophomore had had the rule governing there, their, and they’re explained to him — a real-life example, by the way — well, I felt the least I could do was give the guy the opportunity to put that new-found knowledge into practical application toute suite.
Did I hear some of my readers who graduated from high school before 1969 choke a little during those last couple of paragraphs? “What do you mean?” some of you demand, clutching your chests. “Why didn’t he learn the rules in high school?”
Oh, you’ve stumbled into a contentious subject: when I was teaching in the 1990s, my colleagues at the university asked that particular question all the time. As did I. But when I asked high school teachers about it, they said that in our state, at least, high school composition lesson plans were predicated on the assumption that the students would learn the specific rules in college. And when I asked junior high teachers, they said the students would be taught that material in high school.
Thus the sophomore in my class who had spent years just guessing which one was right.
Is this still the case? I honestly don’t know; I hope not. But at the time, I certainly was not the only teacher who routinely passed out lists of grammatical rules when the lecture was on, say, Confucius.
One term, I had a student who was struggling with the material — let’s call him Lance Corporal, because he was in ROTC. Lance was a bright enough kid, if not particularly motivated. Not all that unusual in that particular class, admittedly, as it was a common distribution requirement, but still, most of the students seemed to manage to do enough of the reading to get by, or at any rate to fake it during discussion sections.
Not so Lance: he invariably sat silent throughout every class. Again, not a terrific surprise: ROTC students, in addition to promising to serve in the military after graduation, typically carry a pretty heavy course load over and above their army-navy-air force classes, so I didn’t begrudge ‘em the odd snooze in class, as long as they kept up with the work.
On the day before the final, Lance appeared in my office, bearing revisions of both of the papers assigned so far in the class — and this time, he did surprise me. Tears in his eyes, he confessed that if he did not raise his grades, he was going to be thrown out of ROTC.
Since I had barely heard his voice in the past nine weeks and the first versions of his term papers revealed that he hadn’t done much of the reading, I suppose I should have been a bit sterner with him — technically, the deadline for submitting either revision was long past. But heck, I didn’t want the kid to lose his scholarship just because he couldn’t read a calendar very well.
Even then, I thought of deadlines more like a writer than a professor, obviously.
So I pocketed his revisions for later grading, giving them back to him at the next day’s final. “Are you sure you want me to grade these, Lance?” I asked him after he’d turned in his bluebook. “It looks as though all you did was make the grammatical and spelling corrections I hand-wrote on your original paper.”
He stared at me blankly. “Yeah? Wasn’t that what I was supposed to do?”
“Well, not only that. I had expected you to answer at least some of the questions I wrote in the margins.” In the face of his incredulity, I figured trying to get him to understand that he should have answered ALL of them was a lost cause.
Confusion was the most socially-acceptable expression of the many on his face. “I thought you just wanted me to think about those questions before the final.” And then he started explaining to me all over again — unnecessarily, I felt — that he was dangerously close to being thrown out of ROTC because of his grades.
Evidently, Lance felt that I had filled the margins and in some cases the back of his pages with commentary because I was just feeling chatty.
Why am I telling you this story at the end of a series on how writers can learn to take feedback well, you ask? Well, Lance made a couple of errors of judgment common amongst writers dealing with agents and editors for the first time.
First — and I’m sure that you’ve figured this one out already — he was too literal in incorporating feedback. Surprisingly, writers will often make the editorial changes scrawled on the manuscript without a murmur, yet neglect to address the larger issues the agent or editor may have suggested in, say, the cover letter that accompanied the marked-up pages.
Remember couple of weeks ago, when I mentioned that hell hath no fury like a critiquer who feels she has expended her feedback-giving time in vain? Well, the overly-literal reviser tends to elicit a similar reaction.
Why? Professional feedback is usually more concerned with identifying manuscript problems than with micro-managing how the writer should solve them.
Or, to quote my excellent agent: “You’re the writer; you figure out how to fix the manuscript.”
Actually, I have always found this rather empowering — it certainly raises the reviser’s ability to negotiate compromises over contested revision points if the critiquer is not married to the details of a suggested change. But when a revising writer is thinking super-literally, he’s implicitly expecting, like Lance, to be told precisely how to change the manuscript in every particular.
I can certainly understand why someone new to the biz would want guidance — but frankly, the mere idea of a writer’s abdicating control of a manuscript to the extent that he would even consider making ALL requested changes blindly simply because he was told to do so…well, I can’t imagine doing that myself.
I was going to say that it made me feel slightly faint, but I believe the ambient glare is responsible for that. Perhaps it is just a heat-induced illusion, but my cat just staggered across my desk, meowing, “Water…water!” like a refugee from a remake of BEAU GESTE.
But I digress. Let me lead the cat to the nearest oasis, then I’ll get back to the topic at hand.
Being reasonable about incorporating feedback does not mean rolling over and playing dead. It means being a good listener, a thoughtful considerer, and a grateful acceptor of critique, no matter who gives it. But ultimately, you are responsible for what you submit.
Lance’s second tactical error was also one aspiring writers frequently stumble upon: he gave his feedback-giver reason to regret having tried to help him in the first place. Not only did he wait until the last possible second to ask me to regrade his papers, but he was astonished that merely incorporating what was after all my revision work into his text wasn’t sufficient to raise his grade. By not thinking through his request for help thoroughly before he made it, he made the issue whether I liked him enough to bend the rules for him.
Long-time readers of this blog, chant the rule along with me now: if you want people in the industry to help you, it’s your job to make yourself as easy to help as humanly possible. And if someone does take the time to give you a hand, you should never leave him or her in any doubt of your abiding gratitude.
So did I allow Lance to rework his papers again during finals week? Well, let me put it this way: I’ve been worrying about him since the war began. But the last time I saw him, his officer’s uniform looked very nice on him.
But if I’d been an agent or editor who had asked writer Lance for changes in a manuscript, would I have been that kind? Maybe, maybe not. But is it really in a writer’s interest to take that gamble?
Basta. Next time, we shall move on to the wonderful world of manuscript problems — beginning with increasing conflict on the page, since you asked so nicely, Gordon — or that’s not Rudolph Valentino riding toward me across the shifting sands.
Keep up the good work!