Write What You Read

I just received a batch of papers from my freshman composition students.  These papers mean several things: free time will cease to exist for me, I will randomly yell at inanimate objects, a lot of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will be watched, and finally my own writing will suffer.

Now depending on how long it takes to grade these papers, my writing may suffer from lack of attention, but I usually find a way to squeeze in time for writing (obviously).  No, I mean the actual sentences I write will suffer.

The more good books you read—as your English or creative writing teacher liked to point out—the better your writing will be.  Of course, someone who has spent years looking at the best writing will develop an ear for syntax and grammar.  Many of my students who admit to being horribly confused by grammar, syntax and punctuation, but who also love to read, naturally write well structured sentences.  They’ve developed an ear for how the language should sound, and when they make a mistake—they may not understand the rule only that something sounds wrong—they usually fiddle with the words until it sounds right.

Unfortunately many of my students are not avid readers, and they haven’t developed an ear for writing.  It is only natural that they make mistakes.  Verb tenses will shift; semi-colons will replace commas.  While I don’t necessarily relish these papers the way I relish the papers of my more well read students, I don’t begrudge them either.  The only way that they are going to learn to be better writers is to write and make mistakes.  I would also like to point out, just because someone is still struggling with writing doesn’t mean they don’t have great worthwhile ideas.  In fact, it is these interesting ideas that often cause me to be so frustrated with grammatical errors—those errors are keeping me from understanding my students.

The strange thing about reading is just how deeply it does affect you.  After I read my students’ papers, I find myself making the same grammatical errors as them.  Perhaps it is my subconscious trying to keep me humble, to remind me how hard writing can be.  (Though I think the hours spent writing or trying to write keeps me appraised of that point.)

That said, when I grade I try to keep myself in a good mood.  I must point out problems in my students’ writing, explain why and how they failed to communicate their ideas, but I don’t need to be nasty about it.  Being nasty, I think, is a sure way to keep students from learning. In turn, I yell at the pages in frustration then write polite comments where I point out what they need to improve and what they did well.  I keep a book of poetry or short stories nearby for breaks.  Also, I keep MST3K on in the background for a laugh, and to remind myself that as bad as the writing may be, it’s not as bad as Robot Monster. 

Robot Monster 1953

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