How Much Is Too Much, Part II

Last week, I blogged about the quandary of how to respond to student work. Here, a few writing teachers I admire share their approaches.

Laurie Ann Doyle teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley Extension. Her story “Restraint” will be published in Midway Journal  this summer.

Constance Hale, author of Sin and Syntax and the forthcoming Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, has taught narrative nonfiction writing at UC Berkeley Extension, Boston University, and Harvard University.

Wendy Tokunaga teaches fiction at University of San Francisco and Stanford Continuing Ed.  The author of three published novels, she has work in two new anthologies, Madonna and Me and Tomo.

Monica Wesolowska teaches fiction writing at UC Berkeley Extension.  Her memoir, Holding Silvan: A Brief Life, is due from Hawthorne Books in April 2013.


What’s your M.O. in giving feedback to students?

LAD:  I believe one of our main jobs as teachers of writing is to motivate people and give them a few (not dozens) concrete ideas for revision, because revision is where the writing usually blooms.  Real revision is what I mean here, not tweaking.

CH:  I go to town on the copy, trying to suggest improvements or line edits and not just noting “awk” or “rework.”  If I find a better opening a few grafs down, I point that out or say “great ending here” if I spot a better one.  I write a brief—three sentences or so—overview with the big stuff at the end.  I try to put into words what I got from the piece:  “I see this as…”

WT: I try and be as thorough as possible, both global and pinpointing, though I don’t usually overdo line edits. I’ll say something like “watch for weak verbs” but will back it up with examples.

MW:  Depends on the student and writing. Most of my feedback tends to be about structure, but when the writing itself is impeding the flow of the story, I do line edits. I try to find the global reason for the weak writing and resist editing an entire manuscript that may still go in unexpected directions. I see myself as teaching my students to trust their imaginations. I’m trying to stimulate deep revision not simply copyediting.

Do you lead with the positive? 

LAD:  I believe strongly in identifying strengths in student work, whatever they may be, and building from there.

CH:  In my brief end graf, I do—in fact, it’s mostly encouraging.  I try to suggest how to take the piece forward or, if it’s really really good, where to try to publish it.

MW: I always start with praise.

WT:  I always lead with the positive, at the very least to praise the premise or recognize the good potential the piece has.

How do you balance the encouraging with the critical? 

LAD: Often what the student has done to make one area successful can help strengthen what’s not. I work hard to see what is working in a piece, and what I believe the writer is striving to say. Then I prioritize and offer 2 or 3 suggestions of what might help them get there, while pointing out as much as I can how the existing strengths  might serve as useful models or bridges.

CH:  I go back over the piece and add check marks or “nice” where something is working if I need to add more positive reinforcement.  I also let everyone know that a “Connie edit” can be a shock—lots of marks, rivers of reds—but that everything I’ve done is merely a suggestion.  It’s the writer’s piece.

WT:  I teach both on and offline and in both I put in emoticons (e.g. smiley faces) where necessary.

MW: As I tell my students, if I can find nothing at all good about a piece, I’m not the right person to give feedback on it.

When you find little to praise, what do you do? 

LAD:  I focus on bringing the work up one level, not necessarily to publishable heights, but simply improving it in some way.  Too many people have had their confidence as writers torn down and feel they can’t write a whit. Motivation comes from feeling excited about the work, not despair.  That said, my approach isn’t all rainbows and light.

CH:  Search harder.  But I’m always honest.  It’s okay to say, Maybe this wasn’t the right subject.  Or, You know, you’ll need to work a lot on “X” if you want to publish your work.

WT:  I point out to all students that many issues are what we all go through as writers and how it’s a process.

MW:  I work hard to understand what’s driving the writer to write. I want my students to learn from me how to write better on their own.


So, what’s clear from these responses?  Attention to language and to what’s working on the page.  No surprise, right?:  we’re teaching writing.

And yet, I’ve found, sometimes the level of engagement is a surprise to the student.  Most  are thrilled to see the care and attention they receive; others are a bit taken aback, as though they hadn’t expect us to really read it. 

Writing is process—drafts, false starts, revisions, handing work in & getting it back.  Through this process, relationship forms.  At its best, teaching is intimate.  Pointing out sloppy syntax can pinpoint sloppy logic or too glib a characterization.  Finding a new, stronger beginning on page 3 can open up a whole new way of looking at the argument or the plot.  As teachers, we get to know a student through what he or she does well–and not so well (yet).  ‘s  Good feedback honors the individual sensibility behind the piece—what Laurie Ann Doyle calls “the expressive urge,” the heart as well as the mind that placed those words in that order.

Will Baker, a wonderful writer and teacher from whom I took a fiction workshop in grad school, once said, “Your story knows more about itself than you know about it.”

Good feedback honors discovery.  Listening to what the story–or personal essay, or poem, or article–already knows:  that takes time and attention.  Any relationship worth its salt takes time and attention.  And isn’t relationship—to language, to one another—why we teach?  And why we write?

And what about you?  What feedback has helped you most in terms of language, finding your subject matter, developing your own voice?  And what (no names, please) has hindered you?

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4 Responses to How Much Is Too Much, Part II

  1. hannahkarena says:

    As a recent student writer in workshop classes, LAD’s MO seems like the closest to what I’d want. Line edits are useless to me unless the professor thinks that’s literally all the story needs; it’s so clean that all that’s left to do is make grammar-level, sentence-structure edits. I want some real ideas about what’s working, what’s not, what needs to be expanded, etc. Some ideas and specific points that help guide and inspire me in my rewrite–because I will be rewriting at that stage–as I expand and reshape the plot and characters.

    • Hannah, you bring up a good point. I think — and I could have made this point in the blog — that so much depends on the focus of the class and where we are with the piece. Too much line editing in a fiction workshop on an early draft can point the writer in the wrong direction (who hasn’t spent hours tweaking a paragraph only to end up nixing the whole thing in a further revision?). Whereas in a class that focuses on style, voice, usage, such feedback is warranted. And I have found that when an instructor points me to a sentence that isn’t quite “there” and leaves me to repair it, I end up re-thinking the whole scene. Sentence work CAN often lead us to what’s not working, and not just in terms of syntax. Jhumpa Lahiri makes a fascinating point to this effect, btw, in yesterday’s NY Times–

  2. Meghan Ward says:

    When I’m in a writer’s group, the editor in me has to really resist the temptation to line edit and to focus, instead, on what’s working and not working in a story. I was in a writer’s group with one woman who would correct all my punctuation (and her “corrections” weren’t necessarily accurate) but gave very little feedback on the story itself. I also had a professor who read my whole ms and marked it up with “Wow!” “Great!” and almost no criticism at all. It was nice for my ego, but not helpful to book, which I am still revising six years later.

    • Yes, there’s a happy medium somewhere. I know that I often line edit (myself & others) as a way to avoid addressing the bigger questions. I have to keep that impulse at bay.

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