Writing (Teaching) Tip: Keep the Pen in the Hand of the Writer

Keep the pen in the hand of the writer.

That’s the trope and 1st commandment of writing centers–and SOP for writing tutors at the LRC.

Every week I put in a couple of hours at the LRC, so I too keep my pen on the table.  It’s a challenging experience for anyone accustomed to the teacher’s or editor’s prerogative to mark up text.

Last week I was working with an EN 101 student who confessed, “I’m a terrible writer.”  Her paper was indeed terribly written, an empty and borderline incoherent summary of an article about the MTV show Skins.

(Skins, for enquiring minds, features comely teenagers without zits getting into trouble over sex, alcohol, and other adolescent diversions.)

But as I read the paper aloud to her, tripping over missing words and pulling up short at the end of sentence fragments, I did come across a gem of an idea: she understood that the author of the article didn’t think Skins was as bad as parents make it out to be.  “Unlike a reality show, it’s scripted.”

Alas, this student hadn’t explored that thought, so I asked her a lot of questions and fed her a lot of prompts and kept my hands in my lap.  She kept writing, and the paper improved.  It wasn’t that good.  It wasn’t the summary I would have written.  But it was hers.  It expressed her insight that Skins writers aspire to character development.

I met the same student today, for another summary.  We read a Post column about the Super Bowl side by side.  Who the heck is this Jerry of Jerry World? I asked. We read on. Oh, Jerry Jones.  Look, there’s a hyperlink.  She clicked, and we found out he owns the Dallas Cowboys.  I hope she also clicked on the behavior I was modeling,  questioning the text.

I did some more pushing and pulling.  I worried that I was being too directive.  I worried that I wasn’t being directive enough.  I worried that she was still vague and repetitive.  When I articulated a thought and she tried to transcribe it verbatim–what did you just say?–I pretended to forget.  But the two paragraphs she drafted came from her own hand.  On her own she’ll have to retype them; she might even revise them.  Whatever I said will vanish because I kept my pen off her paper.  But whatever she ends up with will be her own work.

Pen-off feedback might seem like a luxury reserved for the leisurely interaction of tutors and writers, not the chop-chop exchange between faculty and students.  But you might give it a try.  What if you didn’t line edit?  Or even make margin comments?  What if you didn’t give directions for fixing the paper?  What if you just asked questions?  You might write them down.  Students might then write you back, folding their answers to your questions into the draft.

Just a thought.

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