Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Telling Teenagers that Revising Rocks

On Monday, I had the opportunity to talk to a writing class in my school about the feedback/revising process. I'd been talking to the English teacher at department meeting last week about some revisions I was about to get started on, and she said, "Oh, please, can you come to my Composition classes and talk about how that works for you?" (I'm talking to the second class this afternoon.)

Turns out some of the kids get very reticent, uptight, and defensive when it comes to criticism and making changes in their work. Some feel like it's not theirs anymore if they make the changes suggested by their teacher. Some say straight-up, "But I want it to sound this way, not that way."

It's always fun to get out of my classroom and say, "Hey, look at me pretending I'm NOT a math teacher!" So I threw together an entertaining little PowerPoint and headed over. (It helped that with my teeny-tiny school, there were only five kids in the class—not so nervous-making.)

The kids were good and engaged, and honest about their feelings. Through the presentation and ensuing discussion, we came to two key points.

She's not the boss of me.

I told them about one of my critique partners (Mindy McGinnis, yo), and noted that just because she suggests something doesn't mean I have to make that exact change. Or any change. And if I choose not to, it doesn't mean she's going to scream at me and stomp her feet and never ever EVER talk to me again.

Same goes for the teenagers and their English teacher. We discussed that some feedback is the Just Fix It kind—errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, or facts. But the really valuable feedback is the Ponder and Figure It Out kind—when passages are boring, awkward, confusing, or annoying. Suggestions on how to fix those issues are just that—suggestions.

And that leads us to the second point:

Find your Q.

This was just part of a little scenario I put together. Mindy notes something doesn't work and offers suggestions X, Y, and Z for fixing it. I go ahead with X, work in Z-with-a-twist, and come up with Q all on my own. When I run it by Mindy, she knows I didn't use Y, but that's okay—she says, "Yeah, Q totally works."

Surprisingly, the group kind of latched onto that concept (teasing me about bringing mathematical variables to English class). Some of the students had been stuck in a mindset that the teacher's word was law, so her suggestions had to be followed to the letter. Thus their feeling that the writing wasn't theirs anymore.

Through the discussion, we kept coming back to, "And there's that situation where you need to find your Q—find a way to modify it to address the problem the teacher pointed out, but that still stays true to your voice and characters and story."

What about us?

These reactions and mindsets aren't unique to teenagers, or to those who write only because they have to for school. Those of us who want to (or do) write professionally go through cycles of the same thing, I think.

I don't care who you are—finding out something you thought was great doesn't work can sting. I think a key part of my presentation was when I admitted to the students that I've gotten feedback where my initial feelings were all, "I suck! The story sucks. There's no way I change that in a way that will work. I'm too stupid."

Feeling that isn't a problem—as long as we take the next step, which is rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.

Like I told them, you don't wipe some mud off a car and call it polished. Polishing takes time and effort.

And like Mindy added, exercise doesn't necessarily feel good (or look glamorous) while you're doing it, but the results feel great.


Mindy McGinnis said...


I'm glad we can publicly announce that I'm not the boss of you. There are many days I'm not even the boss of me :)

Jean Oram said...

That's cool that you got to step out and teach kids a bit about criticism and taking what works for you. It works for writing and you know what? It works for real life too!

Anonymous said...

I really like the 'Find your Q', that was wonderful! Some really amazing points here, I hope the kids really got something out of it (it sounds like they did)!

R.C. Lewis said...

Exactly, Mindy. And although I am your minder, I'm still not the boss of you, either. ;)

Jean, it was a very cool experience. Sometimes kids seem to think adults don't feel things like dejected and frustrated and hurt anymore. Yes, indeedy, kids--we're still human!

Jace, I'm pretty sure "Find your Q" is going to stick with me forever now. :)