Professional Learning

Writing Response Takes an (Objective) Village

Blogger Todd Finley highlights the importance of objectivity when reviewing student writing.

October 1, 2010

I was wrong a few days ago. I believed that an early version of this blog post had the swagger and crispness of flat front khakis, until my night students responded to it. They noted scores of errors in the piece. Are you talking about you or other writers? Shouldn't the use of 'first' be followed by a 'second' later? Paragraph two confuses me. Their blood was up. Break time? No need. The metaphor doesn't really help me understand the concept. You repeat the word 'right' in that sentence. I scribbled in the margins, trying to keep up with their insights. "This is fun!" said one. After a half an hour, the class took a food break and I looked at my notes. How had such obvious errors escaped my notice?

The Writing Mind is Subjective

Anyone who believes that writers can critique their own prose with any kind of clinical objectivity is putting too much faith in the prefrontal cortex, part of the neo cortex, the most recently developed layer of our brain. Our prefrontal cortex, a region responsible for critical thinking and language, is less than 10 million years old?a tottering infant when compared to the primitive brain, which is 200 million years old and counting. Culture and personal histories contribute to our biological predisposition toward erratic abstract thought.

Explains Zen expert Abbot Richard Baker Roshi, "Information is flooding into us all the time, but only a sliver of it reaches our conscious self. In fact, our conscious minds are often the last part of us to become aware of what is happening. Thus, we generally only notice a small portion of the amount of sense information that is coming to us, because the habits of our mind filter out so much it." To use a computer metaphor, the hardware and software that interprets the raw data of the outside world is still in Beta.

Perceiving Our Own Writing

How does the brain respond biochemically when an author reads his own work? To find out, Stephen Johnson, author of Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life (2004), climbed inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI) that maps changes in the brain's blood flow related to neural activity. Specifically, Johnson wanted to compare how his brain responded when he read famous works of literature versus a rough draft of his own prose. The scan showed that Johnson's reading of classic literature inside the giant magnet only activated a small region of the brain. In contrast, reading a sketchy draft of his work triggered memories and memories of memories, colliding and creating a collage of associations, producing a synaptic paroxysm of electrical impulses lighting up his brain.

Reading our own prose is an information-dense experience that can distract us from a purely clinical analysis of our own work.

Friends and Family Do Not Make Good Proofreaders

Objective feedback is, perhaps, the most important gift to a writer. Loyalty, however, an attribute that you would value in a bridesmaid, wife, father or rugby teammate does not align with those of an objective responder/proof-reader. The tie monologue from AMC's Rubicon illustrates why trusting loved ones to provide objective feedback is problematic.

When you left the house this morning wearing that tie, perhaps your wife stopped you in the doorway, perhaps she told you how good you look in that tie, how handsome it was. Now, while I'm sure you love your wife, might I suggest, you have many reasons to distrust her judgment about that tie. Maybe she has a fond memory of another time you wore it, a sentimental attachment. Or perhaps she knows your tie collection and she's simply glad you didn't choose one of the ties she dislikes. Perhaps she just sensed you were feeling a little fragile. She felt like bucking you up a bit.

Good responders have simple motivations. They want to help you develop your work, and that's all. In the early '90s, Kurt, a short fiction writing classmate at the University of Minnesota noted that my narrative had cleverly described the setting. Why, he inquired, hadn't I put the same care into my characters? I've benefited from his critique for years and no longer want him to die. The experience taught me not to let best friends critique each others' papers, and to guide writing groups through processes of constructively giving productive feedback.

Brian Slusser's Response Protocol

Brian Slusser of Clemson University's Upstate Writing Project, in his article, Praise, Question, and Wish, describes a response strategy he has taught his students and that I have been using this semester.

1. Each reader shares praise: (I really liked the section where you _______. )

2.Readers ask a question: (I was confused by _______. What did it mean when you wrote _______?)

3. Readers state a wish: (I wish you would tell me more about _______.)

"Once Praise, Question, and Wish becomes ingrained," writes Slusser, "it frees the reader to stop worrying about how to approach discussing writing" and allows her to focus on the work. Students will not always have a question or a wish. Nonetheless, Slusser's model guides students to focus on the work, not on navigating the complex social interchanges that naturally occur when writers talk about writing.

Coda - Responding to Student Writing: Three Excellent Resources

1.Instructional Strategies - Carnegie Mellon

2.Ten Tips for Responding to Student Drafts - Traci Gardner

3.Diagnosing and Responding to Student Writing - Karen Gocsik

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  • Professional Learning
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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