I assign and grade a lot of writing for college students: diaries, papers, biographical analyses, idea pitches, investor papers and more. So, I now understand a joke from seminary.
So, do you have professor ____?
Yes. Is he interesting?
I think so, but he assigns lots of papers!
How does he grade?
By the pound.
I had the good professor, and he did assign papers and I know he did not read them (mine). I put wild things about him in the papers, and they came back with a letter grade on the front page: all else undisturbed. “A”s mostly.
He assigned a notebook. I bought a ream of notebook paper with hole punches. I divided the ream into two halves. I inserted one half in the middle of the front half of my notes, and the other half towards the end of assigned papers. I did not intersperse new pages among my notes, readings, and other printed materials. They remained nice, white blocks of virgin paper in two slots.
I made an “A”. It made me sad.
But my students write like that. Many write to fill ten pages rather than to say something. I enjoy the 15% who do write, who do struggle to say something. With some of them I edit everything as mercilessly as Pam Schlueder did for me as an aspiring writer in Journalism 2021 at UT.
My first goal with her was a Pulitzer Prize. My second goal became to receive a paper with more black ink than red ink. She taught me to write.
My fat baby ways, my porcine fillers were slashed. They offended her. “There are” and “There is” vanished on sight. Passive verbs, axed. “That” obliterated. Intransitive verbs seemingly followed a red pen stroke to the edge of the paper before tumbling to the Abyss. Multiple prepositional phrases, gerundizing, participial verbing — all vanquished.
So today, when a student shows promise I strive to show writing as a craft, a skill. And like playing the piano; you practice hundreds of hours mechanically before genius flows over proficiencies mastered and draws in the listener.
They are shocked when I hand back 60% of their paper and it says what they attempted, only better. More than that, they are shocked when I hand back the paper.
And some are learning to write and communicate. Some even buy into the fact that writing better forces them to think better. Maybe I should join them!