Helping 2

Many teachers I know feel that students want most to be told what to do. “How do I fix it?” “What should I say?” The literature on teaching anything tells us that at some point, people learn best when they work through problems on their own. But there’s some optimal level of help that positions a person to set off in the right direction rather than flounder around in circles. Finding the optimal level is one of the hardest things for me.

In my own case, the worst editor I had was the one who said, “There’s something wrong. Go fix it.” Unfortunately this was a really important editor, and our lack of communication slammed my fiction-writing career into a concrete wall. The best editor wrote comments like, “There’s an awful lot of sitting around in hotel rooms, brooding, in this book. We need to open it up and get Chris out and acting.” I felt that comments like that gave me a clear sense of how the editor was reacting and something specific to work on. Was he too directive? I’ve never thought so. (He did also tell me things like “Fix ‘babbling’ on page 85”; he hated that verb in that context and he was right.)

I try to say things like, “Here are the questions your paper raises for me,” or, “Here’s where I got confused and why,” or, “What are the counterarguments and objections to your position?” or simply, “I don’t understand this sentence. Did you mean X? If not, can you explain better?” For weaker students, though, I’ve tried “helping” more aggressively. Last term I sat down with a graphic organizer and had the writer fill in boxes with the points she wanted to make. It didn’t change her paper at all, and she’s someone I know was trying.

So today’s question is: given that you often have to write a particular kind of paper or piece (you can’t give your boss a poem), when do teachers, editors, colleagues, cross the line in “helping”? When does “helping” unravel into taking over a paper or project? But then again, when are comments too vague to be useful? When was a time you couldn’t figure out what a reader who was trying to help you meant?

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2 Responses

  1. I’m a novelist ( and poet ) and I find advice from a reader best if it is specific – like you need to add this or cut that, or flesh this out etc. Vague comments are almost worthless.

  2. Hi, lambskinny,

    Thanks for your comment! I’m curious how you define “vague.” Sometimes my students are frustrated that I “hint around.” But I don’t want to tell them what to write. Where’s the line between taking over their writing and giving them a specific critique? This is my major battle! I sometimes am not sure I know where that line is.

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