“OH, NO!”

As I reread this post, prepared a while back, I realize how much it is geared toward college writing. Yet I suspect that many people who would be interested in this topic are people who either are taking, have taken, or are thinking about taking a writing course in college. Most colleges require some sort of writing course, and it’s often a “gatekeeper” course: if you can’t pass it, you can’t enroll in other courses, at least not for long. And since teaching people to write, which has been such a challenge for me, usually involves teaching them in a college setting, this post is rightly addressed to those people, but also to people who’ve participated in writers’ groups and who have had what I call the “Oh, no!” experience there. I hypothesize that anyone facing a college writing course is interested in, if not terrified by, the prospect of being judged as a writer–as we must do when we give grades. So maybe how I feel about those “Oh, nos!” will be useful information, both for people struggling with college and for those for whom feedback can feel like a blow. So here goes.


Sometimes, for me, what turned out to be the most helpful comments are the ones I look at and groan, “Oh, no.” In other words, a colleague or friend will read something and offer an idea for more research that may expand or open up what I tried to do. Or this reader will (eeek) completely miss my point. Or be offended in some way by the basic task I’ve taken on.

The “Oh, no” translates to “I really thought this was finished.”

My recent article for Computers & Composition went through three “Oh, nos.” In the first review, my readers told me to go read six more books. I wanted not to have wasted the year I’d already spent on the paper, so I did. I can say unequivocally that the article improved significantly. I found places where people had been thinking hard about the very issues I wanted to discuss—insights that not only allowed me to think more about what I wanted to say, but also to draw on the authority of people who were respected in the technology arena. The second “Oh, no” resulted from instructions to re-organize. In this case, I’m not all that sure the changes made much difference, but by this time I had eighteen months invested. The third time, they wanted two to three pages cut. (Dirty little secret: look for paragraphs that just run over by a couple of words, and get those lines out. In a long paper, you can get a whole page out that way.)

I sometimes suspect (no, I know!) that students think “Oh, no” when they get my comments back. In a very few cases each year, I’ll write, “Don’t invest any more time in this right now. Go on to the next project and come back to this later.” But most often, I write back with those Higher-Order Global Concerns that really require lots of rethinking and rewriting (and seldom inspire it): “In paragraph 1, you tell me that you want your paper to do X; on the first page, you do seem to be providing background for that plan, but at the top of page 2, you begin talking about Y, and by the end of the paper, I’m wondering if the paper is really about Z. It seems really important to decide which of these is your actual topic, or to find a way to tie these three issues together.”

 If you’re writing fiction, this can happen to you as well. A reader will say to you, “I think your real story is about Ann, not Jennifer. The first three pages about Ann just don’t feel very alive. It’s when you talk about Jennifer on page four that I suddenly get interested. So why don’t you rewrite from Jennifer’s point of view?” I really thought this was finished! Oh, no!

Had any of these “Oh, nos?” Where did they come from and what were they like?


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