Kicking the correcting habit

I got this question recently from a young writer: “How come when I ask my parents to read something I’ve written they immediately start correcting it? I asked my mom to read a first draft and she covered it with marks.  It makes me want to stop showing her stuff.”

Here’s what I told her: The thing to remember is that when your parents were young, they probably never got much feedback other than correction.  So to them, the role of an adult in relation to a child’s writing is of correct-er.  Correcting may be the only way your parents know how to respond.  If you want them to do something different, you’ll probably have to be very specific, ahead of time.  You could try saying something like this:  “This is my first draft of this, so I haven’t worked on the spelling and punctuation details yet.  But I’d like to know what you think of it so far – whether you like the way it sounds, if the characters seem real; stuff like that.”  

It may take a few rounds for them to get comfortable leaving the “errors” alone, so try not to get too frustrated and give up on them.  They really do want to read your writing; they just need a little help with responding to it.

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If you ask most adults why they think kids need to be able to write, they’ll say “so they can express themselves clearly; so they can say what they need to say in writing.”  Our words suggest that we’re interested in the communication of writing.  But our actions – the way we’re eager to get our hands on a child’s work with a correcting implement in hand – tend to suggest otherwise.  We don’t mean to get in the way of what we say we want (progress toward proficiency in communicating), but we do. When we respond only with correction to kids’ attempts to use writing in the way we say we want them to (leaving notes, posting Do Not Enter signs, compiling long wish lists, drafting stories) it sends the message that we’re more committed to the presentation – the performance of the writing – than to the actual communication.

Once kids get a grip on using words on paper to send meaning out into the world, our editing services may well become welcome and even requested.  We might offer them like this: “Before you send this note to your grandmother do you want me to look over it and make suggestions about what might make it easier for her to read?  If the words are spelled the way she’s used to seeing them your thanks might come through more clearly.”  Or “I know you’re hoping that your poem might get printed in Highlights.  If you’d like I can make a couple of suggestions about changes you could make that might help them understand what you’ve written so they can appreciate it.”

It’s not that kids can’t use our input.  It’s that when we throw it at them before it’s useful, because it’s all we’ve been taught to do with early writing, it’s more discouraging than helpful.  Professional writers grant themselves latitude in the early drafts and stages of their writing; polishing is for later, if the thing is to be presented for publication or otherwise committed to print.  If we offer that same latitude to young emerging writers, they’ll do the same thing with it that the professionals do; they’ll use it to plumb the depths, look for the essence, of what they want to say.  And also like the professionals, they’ll sometimes decide that what they’ve written is something they want to share.

That’s when our experience and editing services can become useful and welcome.  And if when we offer services we respect a child’s choice to accept or decline, we make two things possible that might not otherwise be.  First, if kids know that our support is optional, they’re not restricted to a choice between compliance and resistance.  They become available to receive what we’re offering if it’s useful to them.  (Otherwise they tend to resist out of habit and frustration.)  Second, we make it possible for them to learn how to discern which corrections/suggestions/changes actually serve what they’re trying to communicate.  If we just bully them into taking our changes because we’re bigger and older than they are, because we say so, because we know best, we shut down the process of their learning to discern for themselves.

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