Tuesday, March 26, 2013

How Do I Know It's Good?

My most recent post was generally well received, but a few people asked me (in private--come on, folks, post to the blog itself, or better yet, follow it!), "How do I know what parts of my writing are good?"  If, in other words, I'm recommending that writers approach writing and revision from a strengths perspective, how does one recognize one's strongest material?

That's obviously a much bigger question than I can answer in a single post (or a hundred).  But I thought I'd offer an anecdote that at least speaks to the question.

On the second day of the semester in my first-year composition classes, I give students their first assignment (a personal essay that asks them to write about an epiphany they experienced in the natural world) then have them freewrite for ten minutes or so.  When they're done, I instruct them to read over what they've written and choose the single sentence that's their best.  Then, using that sentence as the starting point (and setting aside everything else), I ask them to write a new draft.

The results?

Without exception, students report--and having looked at both versions, I can confirm--that their rewrites begin in a better place than their original drafts.

How to explain this?  Bear in mind that I teach students who, until a few years ago when our director of composition eliminated not-for-credit remedial courses, would have been placed in just such courses.  Virtually all of them hate to write; most of them struggle to read with comprehension, much less with insight and delight.  And prior to the point that I give them this assignment, zero writing instruction has taken place; I've spent day one going over the syllabus and administering a diagnostic exam.  Yet somehow, 100% of these students, writing under these circumstances, are able to identify a sentence that is their best and use it as the basis of a new draft.


Well, if I could answer that, I'd be a millionaire.  But I can speculate, and here's what I think is going on.

First: the assignment is very low-pressure.  We end up looking at their papers in class, but it's not a graded assignment, and the graded version won't be due for weeks.  So performance anxiety is at a pretty low ebb.

Second: by asking the students to identify their best sentence and to disregard everything else, the assignment removes the stigma of "bad writing."  There is no bad writing in this assignment: there's only good writing and everything else, which isn't bad but simply not utilized.  (The good sentences are usually deep into the first draft, and when we start talking about theory, I encourage students to recognize that they probably couldn't have produced their good sentence if they hadn't first produced all the rest.)  Liberating writers from the fear of badness, in other words, gives them the ability to perceive goodness.

Third and finally: the assignment is empowering, because it has nothing to do with what I consider good and everything to do with what they consider good.  The whole thing would blow up in our faces if I went around the room and told them what's good (or bad) about their writing.  But I don't, and neither does anyone else.

So there you have it: low pressure, positive reinforcement, and self-direction enable writers who lack confidence in their writing to pinpoint what they're doing well and improve their papers on the basis of it.

I won't lie to you: not every class session is so upbeat as this one.  There's a time for criticism and tough choices.  But the point here is twofold: first, it's important to start from a strengths perspective; and second, when one does so, one finds that every writer has the capacity to identify what they're doing well and to build on it.  This doesn't mean all my students will become accomplished (much less published) writers, any more than they'll all become rock stars, CEOs, or supermodels.  But they'll all become better writers, which is what I'm paid to help them become.

Bottom line: writers know what's good.  They just need the chance to prove it.


  1. Welcome to the first activity in my summer Comp I session. Thanks for the idea, Josh!

  2. Awesome--let me know if it works for you too!