Every now and then, I have to do something technical. I don’t like it, the students don’t like it, and class seems to linger. But writing is work; sometimes we have to roll up our sleeves and tackle the not-so-exciting portions.
I am a published writer. But I have a problem: typos plague my writing. Yes, Dear Reader, if you have read one of my blogs, you have come across a typo or two or five or ten, I know. I assure you, Reader, that typos are problematic for me, and give me much anxiety. I am so anxious over them, that I have yet to reread my first published book.
I am terribly afraid that I’ll open my book, find a typo, and have a conniption (Okay, I don’t know what a conniption is, but all of the old folks said we can have them, so it must be something).
My typo problem is something that I address in class with my composition students. I never teach the students any writing practices that I don’t actually use. Pedagogically, I have a three-fold reason for embarrassing myself in this way:
1.) Many students HATE English. They have been made to feel stupid for breaking verbs or committing comma splices. Well, I teach my students that all writers have a weakness. Not only is my writing plagued by typos, semicolons give me a fit. I think semicolons and colons are the Devil’s punctuation marks. This confession brings down the English anxiety in the room and allows students to think critically, respond to questions without thinking that I am going to embarrass them for their grammar, and formulate amazing thesis statements. I weave grammar workshops in throughout the semester. Each class is different, so I tend to focus on the patterns (not each and every mistake) that I see in their writing. We go over some things, using either handbooks or a free resource. See the following link for one of my favorite open educational resources: https://owl.purdue.edu/
2.) Students must understand that writing is constantly a work in progress. Writing is real work. It takes marked concentration, and it is ongoing. Many students hate writing, because they think one has to be naturally talented in writing in order to produce good papers. They do not realize that writing is a craft with differing narrative techniques/styles that even talented writers must learn and constantly practice in order to be successful. In order to drive this point home, I compare writing to art. Many accomplished artistic genii draw things repeatedly until the drawings match the ideas in their minds. Some artists struggle with drawings. Here is such a drawing from master Renaissance artist, Raphael.
Students do not realize that writing can be hard. When we write, we are taking thought tumbleweeds and imposing a linear order on them. This is difficult mental work! Furthermore, students see each writing assignment as a separate entity. Writing instructors spend all of this time commenting on their papers, they ignore the comments, and look at the grade on the final page. When we receive the next paper, they are riddled with the same kinds of mistakes that we have already commented upon. And this continues, sometimes until the end of the semester. What if master artist Charles White never paid attention to places where he could have improved? Could he really have produced this piece?
3.) Students have an over-reliance on their spell/grammar checkers. Spelling and grammar programs are programs on the computer: they are not as reliable as the human eye/ear. When students fail to go back through and re-read their papers, they hand in essays riddled with serious grammar issues (particularly fragments and run-ons) that the computer failed to catch.
As for my typos, I tell students exactly where I am going wrong and I do make diligent efforts to minimize them, though I do not always succeed. This much is obvious. These are practices that I encourage the students to use in their own writing. First, I am not a luddite, but I am not always quick to embrace new technology. Until recently, I actually used a legal pad or notebook paper, wrote out all of my thoughts by hand first, then typed them. This forced me to concentrate and catch mistakes as I typed. Well, as my life became more complicated, I no longer had/have that kind of time. I type most of my drafts now. The problem with my typing is this: I think faster than my fingers can type. There are plenty of times when I skip letters, punctuation marks, and even whole words! Pencil and paper forced me to slow down and reconcile these thought-omissions, but the computer does not. If I miss a preposition or two, I am not aware of it, the spell/grammar check does not correct it, and I keep right on going with my thoughts. Second, everyone needs a second set of eyes, and I am not part of any reading circles. When we spend hours and hours with our material, the brain fills in what we want to see. This is the purpose of second readers and editors. Because I live in a part of the country that does not seem to know that the Caribbean and Africa have vibrant literary histories, no one ever wants to be part of any reading circle that includes me. I write about the ENTIRE African Diaspora, and not just African Americans. I write alone in my bedroom. I edit my own writing, but things still slip by me. Last, my attention is divided at home. Yes, I admit it. I am a wife, mother, sister, daughter, aunt, and niece. Sometimes, these roles pull my attention away from my writing. It is only when I can afford a writing retreat in some small dwelling in the woods that I realize the egregious mistakes that I have committed.
Here are some editing tips that I pass along to my students. And I have to practice these as well.
- ) If time permits, write the first draft by hand. The hand gliding along the paper cannot move nearly as quickly as the fingers can type. Writing by hand forces us to slow down and think about the words that are being put down on paper and how they flow together.
- ) Do not rely solely on spell and grammar checkers as editors. The computer is programmed to recognize certain words. At the sentence level,it recognizes subjects and verbs. The computer may not recognize a word that is not commonly used in the daily lexicon and it may miss a subordinating clause at the beginning of a sentence. Don’t believe me? Open a Word document and type this in: “Although it rained yesterday.” That sounds like a fragment to your ear, but Reader, the grammar checker will not recognize this as a fragment. It has a subject and a verb, right?
- ) Write without distractions. For today’s students, this is like asking them to volunteer for a root canal. Sometimes, we need to write without the television in the background and our phones buzzing with notifications. Writing takes mental concentration, and we lose concentration when we stop to answer that text.
- ) If time permits, walk away from the final draft, then revisit it. It is best not to spend too much compressed time with our own material. We need time to digest, analyze, and synthesize. Even if it is our own material, when we walk away from the material and come back to it, we become editing phenomena! If time does not permit, I advise students to read their material out loud. That way, if they have missed a word, forgotten a preposition or two (in my case, ten or so), their ear picks it up and they can correct it right away. Reading silently does not force us to “hear” and see what we’ve written adequately.
- ) Recognize that punctuation is important. In today’s world, when students spend more time typing with their thumbs than actually typing, it seems as if punctuation has been dismissed. Well, this a bad habit from texting that is bleeding into formal writing. Punctuation is important in the law. The placing of a comma or period could radically change how a law is interpreted. Furthermore, there are some professions that recognize notes as legal documents and the court would heavily frown upon something like, “b4.” I inform students that social workers, insurance adjusters, therapists, and counselors all take notes and those notes are subject to subpoena.
Okay, Reader, have you gotten through this posting without falling asleep? If so, you are doing better than my students. I am going to wrap up here. Tune in Thursday for the next posting.
This comes from my Comp II class, which is an “introduction to research methods,” themed, transdisciplinary course always.