the pain and value of group editing

Posted: January 18, 2016 in Uncategorized

I didn’t understand the difficulties of being a writing teacher until the day I had to return graded essays to my summer school English class.  We’d been meeting every morning for a couple of weeks at that point, and we had built a good rapport in the classroom.  It felt like the kids knew I was on their side – that I wanted them to do well, that I saw good things in them and wanted to draw those things out.  That I wasn’t there to torment them on these summer mornings when they’d rather be – well – pretty much anywhere else.

I had assigned an essay and they had groaned.  My encouragement talk had been long and heartfelt, and their resistance had come down a bit.  They had turned in stuff that I enjoyed reading – stuff with potential.  Stuff that just needed some honing to be worthy of submitting to be read more widely.  Stuff I’d like to have kept, just for the joy of remembering I got to be a part of that process.  I had proofread it with great care, marking needed corrections and writing lots of explanatory notes and clarifying questions in the margins.

As I walked around the classroom, handing back the graded papers, they were crestfallen.  “So much red ink!” one exclaimed.  I leaned over to point out that much of that red ink was positive comments and compliments.  Sure, some of it was corrections.  But couldn’t he read from the tenor of my overall text how much I’d loved the piece?

I had warned the class that this was part of the process – that anything worth writing was worth honing well.  That the important focus for the first draft was telling of the story well, meaning in a way that left the reader wanting more.  That the sculpting step of editing was painful but necessary for an effective end-product.  (Writing that right now makes me wince, since this blog is none other but a string of daily first drafts with at best only the most quick and cursory editing, never reworked through that essential process!  And still you read.  Thank you for the encouragement.)

I was surprised to need an entire morning to help the kids over the hump of their discouragement about the proofreading marks and comments.  It became almost a counseling session, but I suppose “coaching” is a better word.  I had to work to build them back up from the shock of the red ink, had to infuse them with my own hope and excitement for the potential I could see in what they’d written.  In the end, they reluctantly worked through the edits and turned in vastly improved essays, worthy of the gift none of them seemed to understand they possessed with words on a page.

I love the editing process, even though I rarely like or enjoy it.  While I haven’t worked out time for proper proofreading here on the blog, at work we are kind of relentless with the editing of documents amongst a little ring of 4 or 5 of us.  One of us writes (mostly me, but sometimes one of the others writes) and then submits the work to the others, who proceed on a seek-and-destroy mission for errors, for lack of clarity, and for failure of focus.  The document drafts are returned with whole sections crossed out and rethought, with pointed questions, with items circled and arrowed for complete relocation.  Everything is addressed, from the finer points of formatting, punctuation and grammar to tone to overarching themes.

It can be hard, getting those edits back.  Sometimes I’m inspired and excited by the changes suggested, but sometimes I feel kind of deflated. Sometimes my pride is wounded and I am irritable.  Sometimes I have to coach myself through the process, reminding myself over and over that we are working for the best possible end product, and I am not the only one who knows about improving a communication.  Often I’m grateful for the help, but sometimes it takes serious inner conversation for me to choose not to be offended.  Often (as is also the case here on the blog) I am mortified at the errors I’ve missed, the flat-out mistakes I’ve made, the clumsiness of the first draft.  I have to resist the urge to try and save face.

There is never a need to save face while editing.  Drafts are just that:  drafts.  The writing process is about first getting it on the page, and then fixing it.  People who need it all to be perfect on the first round are unlikely to grow their writing into something others will want to read and come back asking for more – they are more likely to write boring, uninspired but perfectly “correct” sentences that no one will care enough to notice at all.

Furthermore, it is somewhere between difficult and impossible for some of us to proofread our own stuff thoroughly.  When I read what I’ve written, what I see is what I *meant* to say, not necessarily what I actually wrote on the page, which is how the wrong “to” or the incorrect “their” slides through.  I tend to have giant blind spots about what I’ve failed to explain due to assuming it is already understood at the outset.  I do some basic editing even as I’m constructing the first draft, and I will often delete phrases, sentences, or whole paragraphs – and then forget that I’ve done so and refer to them later in the same work.  It gets ugly.

So I’m willing – grateful, even – to submit the writing I do at work to others for their review and suggestions.  After we’ve been through somewhere between two and ten rounds of revision, the end product is something worthy of being shared.  Having worked with plenty of people in my life who couldn’t bear the pain of that process, I am deeply grateful to work with a group who can and do – who suffer the indignity in pursuit of an excellent final product.  I treasure people who will approach my work with their scalpel and not worry about my feelings as they cut away.

Putting this all down on the page is making me wish I had a writing partner for the blog – someone to ruthlessly rip it to shreds and help me pull the best out of what can be somewhere between mediocre and not bad, with an occasional round of, “Wow, did I really write something that good?!”

Maybe I’ll start asking God about that.  Who knows what He’s got in mind?


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