Writers’ Wednesday: Getting Past the Red Pen.

I’ve been teaching writing professionally for six years now. When it comes to terrible writing, I’ve seen it all. I’ve also seen seventh graders who write better than many college students. I was struck by an encounter with a student yesterday while I was doing consulting, and I thought I’d use that encounter as a springboard to dive into today’s topic. Today we discuss mechanical errors, why they don’t necessarily make you a terrible writer, the power of the “not yet” mindset, and how to easily take care of your grammar and mechanical issues.

“I’m a terrible writer,” she said.

A young woman, anxiety in her light blue eyes, came and sat down at my consulting station in the writing center yesterday. She asked if she could talk to me about her paper, even though she didn’t have an appointment. I was free for about twenty minutes, so I agreed. She started off by telling me what a terrible writer she was, and how much she was struggling with her assignment.

After reading through her paper, and using a pencil to make some mechanical marks, I offered her some advice on how to make the paper better and meet the requirements of the assignment. It didn’t seem to me like she could even hear what I was saying to her. Her body language conveyed total powerlessness, and she seemed to be fixating on all of the marks I’d made on the paper. Now I used pencil instead of my traditional red pen, because I know that red pens have been linked to anxiety in writing students, and I also wanted to subconsciously suggest that it’s all fixable.

My first approach was to try and counter what she’d first said. She isn’t a terrible writer at all. Again, I’ve seen terrible writing, and what I read from her wasn’t it. It wasn’t Pulitzer Prize winning, but it wasn’t terrible. In fact, it wasn’t even bad. It was C level at worst for someone who isn’t working on a degree in English. And that’s if I were being a complete jerk about it. Her sentences were well structured, easy to understand, and flowed logically from one to the next – as were her paragraphs. The only things I marked up on the paper were mechanical errors. Then I offered some more complex advice about how to get what she was saying to conform a little more to the assignment, and it was like we were speaking two different languages.

I, of course, can’t speak for this young woman, for whom I feel a great deal of empathy, but I don’t think anything I said got through to her at all. She seemed like she was still completely frustrated after I finally had to cut our session short to get to my next appointment. I asked her to come back in a half-hour after my appointment was done, but when the time came, I looked around and she was gone.

The “Not Yet” mindset

We never see where they started.

Sometimes it’s called a growth mindset, and it’s basically all I preach here on Brandonia, but the gist of it is this: Neither Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, nor Eddie Van Halen could play guitar at age 3. They all started somewhere. They might have become masters more quickly than others who try the guitar, but I’d be willing to bet that there was some snotty guitar store clerk somewhere in Seattle rolling his eyes the first time Hendrix ever walked in and picked up a new guitar to try it out.

The process is real

My point, of course, is that nobody becomes good at something overnight. And even those of us that eventually go on to master our craft still find ways of improving every day.

Good writing is more about process, structure, and organization than it is about periods, semicolons, and commas. If you plan your writing first, understand proper sentence structure, and know how to put your ideas in order, then you’ve got most of the heavy lifting done. The mechanics can be easily fixed.

Advice on mechanics

First, don’t always trust the spelling and grammar checker included with Word, Pages, Google Docs, or others. Use a third party site or extension such as Grammarly to help you with punctuation and spelling.

Second, employ a proofreader. Get someone else who knows what they’re doing as a writer to proofread your stuff. If you’re writing for school, ask a classmate who’s doing well in class, or a teacher’s aide, or a writing consultant. If you’re writing for work or some other reason, and you don’t know anyone who is good at mechanics, you can always pay a few bucks to have someone do it for you. UpWork is full of freelancers who will proofread your work for moderate prices (depending on how qualified you want the freelancer to be).

Third, read your work out loud, and slowly. This will help you identify a lot of your own issues.

Fourth, if you can swing it, I recommend buying a style guide to keep with you. If you can’t afford one, check one out from your local library for each writing project you’re doing. I use Easy Writer because it’s laid out as a great quick reference for many style, grammar, and usage issues.

Finally, you can always look to YouTube or Khan Academy for videos to explain the principles of writing mechanics.

Final Thoughts

My heart breaks every time I hear someone say “I’m not a…” or “I’m terrible at…” or “I can’t do…” This blog is filled with stories of times when I’ve overcome that mindset in so many different areas – from serving in the military, to running and exercise, to math. I’ve become proficient at a lot of things I told myself I’d never be able to do, and I did them all by starting with a single step. I hope you can do the same.

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