Commenting on Comments
The only thing worth saying in a book review, Raymond Carver once said, is Good job, keep writing! Some people hearing that line assumed he was soft-hearted if not soft-minded – but Carver was neither. He knew that writing, especially personal writing, is an act of courage in which we expose ourselves -- what we stand for, what we believe, what we feel -- to public scrutiny. As a classroom teacher, I’ve always kept this idea in mind when I respond to student work.
As a student I suffered through the bleeders (teachers whose pens leaked so much red ink that the page looked like a crime scene) and the teachers who wrote short pithy judgments like “Awk!” that sat atop lines the like the murder of crows on telephone wires in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. (Communication channels are always the first to go in horror movies). These teachers never motivated me to write more. Rather they made me afraid to speak and encouraged me to take fewer risks in order to avoid the harsh and cryptic marginal “notes.”
Such comments end rather than promote discussion. Worse, they breed cynicism and self-doubt. As a college freshman, my wife was told by a poetry teacher that she had written the best poem she would ever write. Though this comment was meant to be positive, it strikes me as just about the worst possible pronouncement a teacher can make. How different than William Stafford’s advice in Leaving a Writer’s Conference: “Listen -- if it was OK/this time, the world can surprise us/again.”
Luckily I had a number of teachers who read my work the way Raymond Carver might have. They encouraged me to re-write my work and took the time to talk over the choices I had made and the choices I had not considered. I try to keep these models in mind when I read student work. The only judgments I write are positive, the only declarative sentences encouraging. When writing is infelicitous – okay, awkward! – I write questions: How else might this sentence be written? What are you assuming about your readers here? Can you think of a more powerful verb here?
These are not rhetorical questions. With my comments I hope to hear my students’ responses, to read their revisions, and to talk with them about their writing. Like Carver, I want my implicit message to be, “Keep writing.”
John S. O'Connor's poems have appeared in places such as Poetry East and RHINO. He has written two books on teaching: This Time It's Personal: Teaching Academic Writing through Creative Nonfiction (2011) and Wordplaygrounds: Reading, Writing, and Performing Poetry in the English Classroom (2004). He earned his BA and MAT from the University of Chicago and his PhD from...