The Good, the Bad, and the Boring

October 10, 2009

Before I became a teacher, I made my living with words as a newspaper editor and columnist, a radio production director, a graphic designer and copywriter, and as an entrepreneur with my own marketing business. I’ve had lots of opportunities to edit other people’s words. As a teacher, I’ve read thousands of pages of writing. Over the years, I’ve kept track of my thoughts when I’m reading because I want to learn from the good and from the bad:

Words and phrases that describe writing that is enjoyable:

Insightful, interesting, well-supported, engaged, makes connections, seems like the writer was interested in the topic, is significant, fun to read, enthusiasm for the topic shows, creative, uses higher order thinking, thoughtful, surprising, exceeds expectations, demonstrates pride of ownership, good vocabulary, appropriate word choices.

And there’s more: develops ideas, seeks to understand the topic, aware of other perspectives, grapples with ambiguities or uncertainties—doesn’t ignore things that don’t “fit,” learning is demonstrated, historical context is considered, organized, focused, uses stories and examples, lively, unusual, mostly error-free, written with heart.

My highest praise? When I say, “I wish I’d written that!”

Words and phrases that describe writing that feels like a waste of time:

Cursory, trivial, generic, error-filled, no central idea, unsupported, incomprehensible, words used incorrectly, lack of vocabulary, silly, uncaring, lower level thinking, misspelled, dull, just enough to get by, minimal, blew it off, boring, can’t wait to finish reading it, disorganized, appears done at the last minute.

Uninteresting writing lacks the qualities that describe writing that is enjoyable. I feel ripped off when I waste my time reading something that was obviously written without care. I really do have better things to do. In fact, there are few things that give a teacher a worse impression of a student than a poorly written and uncaring paper.

I don’t mind reading papers if they’re interesting. I don’t even mind if there are some mechanical errors. I enjoy being able to help someone improve her or his work. I can forgive misused semi-colons and misspelled words if it’s clear that the content is thoughtful. I can work with a student in the same way I used to work with a feature writer to improve a story, although I get frustrated when it becomes clear that the errors are not caused by ignorance, but by the failure to proofread.

Reading student work takes time. Even if a teacher has only forty students and spends just ten minutes a week reading work for each of them, that’s four hundred minutes, or more than six and a half hours. If I’m going to be engaged in reading and commenting, I hope that students were engaged when they were writing. Otherwise, I’ll be angry and resentful over the waste of several evenings or a weekend day.

When the writing is worth reading, I feel energized and delighted by my choice of a career. Teaching and learning truly are symbiotic, and the work students turn in affects a teacher’s enthusiasm for the job. Next time you write a paper or respond in writing online or otherwise, imagine the teacher reading it and imagine that your job is to delight that person. Trust me, delighting your teachers is definitely one of the keys to success in school!

What are your strengths and challenges when it comes to writing?

Writing is thinking on paper. • William Zinsser


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