Thursday, November 11, 2010

Filling in the Blanks

Every semester, the question I am most likely to hear at least 237 times is "Can you just tell me what to write so that I can get an A?"

I'm always tempted to respond, "Do you want me to cut up your meat for you too?" or "Did you not hear me say no the first five times you asked me that? Be gone!"

Questions like that irritate me as much as statements like "You made a mistake with my grade. I know I stopped showing up to class for a month, but I deserve AT LEAST a B" and "Why should we care about this? When will we EVER use this?" and "I need to leave forty minutes early, but I won't be counted as absent, right?" (I am not making these statements up.)

Meanwhile, I'm thinking that maybe I should leave the classroom right now, because otherwise my evil alter ego will take over and I'll turn into Professor Screams-A-Lot.

On the one hand, I can understand why students are so focused on getting A's. Undergrads are under an incredible amount of pressure. If they don't maintain good GPAs, they could lose scholarships or financial aid. They need those A's to get internships and to get into grad school.

I could tell them exactly what to write. I could also pull a rabbit out of my textbook so that they'll stop falling asleep in my classes.

When students pressure me to "fix" their drafts, they're missing the point of writing. It's one thing for me to guide them through the process and show them how to write thesis statements, do research, and present both sides of the argument. But if they expect me to line-edit their papers and fix all their mistakes, then all that's left for them to do is fill in the blanks. It's like Mad Libs. The story is already written; all people have to do is put in a few words or phrases.

No writer would say to an agent or an editor, "Can you just tell me exactly what to write so that I can get published?" The agent and the editor would just throw the book at them. Literally.

It's fine and often necessary to get feedback from other people. They can help you see your writing from different perspectives. They can provide encouragement and constructive criticism. But they can't write the story for you, because ultimately, it's your story.

It's not just about getting an A or getting published. Writing is about freeing all those ideas and secrets you've kept locked up in your head and your heart. It's about rewriting, so that you can learn from your mistakes. It's about telling the world how you feel. But if you try to get other people to write the story for you, then it's not your story anymore.

That's why it bothers me so much when some of my students seem to care more about the grade then the writing. They end up not learning anything from the writing process. They don't get to tell their stories.

When you share your writing with other people, what kinds of questions do you ask them? What kind of feedback do you hope to get?

By the way, Guinevere is hosting a cool contest on her blog, This is Not My Day Job; all you have to do to enter is be a follower and leave a comment on her blog. You could win a great art print with a writing theme! For more info check out her blog. The deadline to enter is November 19.


  1. Great post! Sometimes I think writers depend too much on their beta readers and critiquers. Ultimately it has to be from within. Even an editor can say what to fix but the writer must draw on their own inner vision to get it right.

  2. I think a big part of the problem is the poor quality of high school English courses. I know my high school English classes were terrible and in no way prepared me to write anything longer than a three paragraph regurgitation of the way I should have interpreted a poem. College was a terrible struggle for me, and it's not even over yet. I hope your students have the good sense to listen to you and not allow anyone else to do their papers for them. They would only be doing themselves a disservice.


  3. Hi Karen,
    You're right. Like you said, each writer has his or her own unique inner vision. I think that many writers are perfectionists, but it's up to them to make it right.

    Hi Delilah,
    Some of my students listen to me, but I'm still working on the others. You're right in how high school writing is very different from college writing; I guess that's why they require freshmen to take college writing classes. But I have to admit that I struggled with college writing at first too when I was a student.

  4. I love this post! I think often, it's easy to forget why we're writing - because we enjoy it, because it's drive inside. It's very easy to get caught up in publication fever - just like your undergrads are caught in grade fever.

  5. Sorry, that's kind of ridiculous to say: "I deserve a B or an A because I showed up to class and did a half ass job"

    That's the whole point of it being a lot of pressure. You have to start somewhere, ask for feedback to be better, but not expect that you'll get it right

    People are so obsessed with instant gratification that they are too damn lazy to learn the SKILL of Learning and Research any more.

    It'd be like telling an employer: "I deserve a raise because I didn't steal from the company and shoot anyone, not because I'm working harder, better and smarter than my cube mate."

    Start somewhere, ask for feedback, swallow your pride (I am not at this stage to swallow my pride yet, am working on it) and improve.

  6. My best teacher was one who offered zero help, but constantly gave me Cs. I hated her at the time, and she really could have offered slightly more help or at least explained why she wasn't offering help, but in hindsight I learned the most from that class. I learned to come up with original theses. I learned to write good supporting evidence. I learned that the rest of college was going to be a piece of cake once I got those skills down, haha.

  7. NW: I am forever grateful to our honors/AP English teacher in high school, who didn't take any shit, challenged us constantly and made us better readers and writers. It's largely because of her that my papers in college were always well-received.

    Talli, I agree. It's SO easy to get caught up in publication fever, and ignore why we started writing in the first place: because it's fun! Not a constant party, but we love making up stories.

    I also agree that crit partners and groups are great, but ultimately it's the writer's story. I took a writing class from a published author who said her editor wanted her to change a pretty major character detail in her book. She said no, because she felt it was really important to the story. The detail stayed. In summary, I feel like the writer should have an open mind to critiques/changes, but there are certain things you don't budge on and that's okay.

  8. Hi Talli,
    It's definitely easy to get publication fever. I think it's partly because so many celebrities get their books published in such a short amount of time, so it often seems like they didn't have to put in a lot of effort. But for most writers, it can take years of effort. But in the end, it's worth it if you love writing.

    Hi FB,
    I totally agree with you. Sometimes, students will take my feedback on their papers seriously, but other times, other students will get upset if my feedback isn't what they wanted to hear. Even after I explain my reasoning, a few will still argue that their perspective is right.

    Hi gem,
    It does sound like you learned a lot from that class. What's key is that you were willing to put in the effort and you strengthened those skills as a result. I wish all students could be like that.

    Hi maybeimamazed02,
    There are certain things in my manuscript that I would be open to changing if other people (like editors and agents or crit groups) convinced me that the changes were necessary. But like you said, there are some things that I wouldn't be willing to budge on, because the story would be different if I did.

  9. KarenG said I must absolutely follow you and I am so glad she did. I just read three of your posts and loved them! I am at work and my coworkers thought I was crazy giggling to myself over in the corner. I promise I am not wasting work time, it is slow today and there is nothing to do.
    About writing...I learned the trick for research papers in high school english. It was the only thing I learned in four years of high school.

  10. Hi Jane,
    Welcome to my blog! I think that laughing is never a waste of time, because the endorphins can motivate you to work. (I'm not sure if that's actually true. I kind of just made that up.)

  11. I was obsessed with getting A's, but I don't believe I ever questioned my grade (and no, I did not get A's every time)... My dad teaches undergrads, and he tells me all the ways they try to finagle better grades out of him. It's unreal. I would never have thought to do that in college (or high school, for that matter).

  12. Hi Annabelle,
    I know, right? I never tried to get professors to change my grade. It's putting all the responsibility for the grade on the professors, when really it's up to the students to earn the grade.