Commenting on essays: how frank is too frank?

This morning in Paragraph City, I’m commenting on rough drafts of the first paper in a writing class.  At the end of a student’s first paragraph I write, Terrible opening, full of unsupported platitudes and padding. Cut the crap and say something meaningful.  The faculty equivalent of my spidey sense sounds but I go on with my reading and commenting anyway. Then just before I return the rough draft, I delete that last sentence and write instead, You need to establish a focus and point the reader toward your thesis.

The thing is, I’m not sure which will communicate better to the student. Certainly the second sentence won’t get me into trouble with any administrators. (The scenario unfolds like this in my imagination: student’s father is well-connected in the community and phones my dean asking if ‘this writing is crap’ is an appropriate way for faculty to talk to students and my dean says ‘well, let’s hear the whole story’ and that means that next week I’m seated at a round table with my dean and an online student I’ve never seen and a man in an expensive suit, and I’m explaining the educationally efficacious advantages to calling the introductory paragraph of an essay “crap.”) I do not like this scenario.

And yet, the intro was crap, or specifically the more volatile bullshit: fluidly composed generalities about Chekhov’s writing and place in Russian literature and influence on later writers that had nothing to do with the short story the student was assigned to write about; no thesis; and but one reference to the story, calling it soporific – not, certainly, the word she meant. Now to some students, all that’s necessary is to say ‘cut the crap’ and they get it. They’ll throw it out and go back to the assignment’s directions.

That takes me back some twelve or fourteen years ago, when I’d have never even thought to call someone’s writing crap, but then I had this great student writer who wrote that sort of first paper, all padding and no content.  “Oh yeah,” she said when she read my comments. “It’s crap, I know it, but at least it was on-time crap. I had a chemistry exam to prep. Sorry. Next paper, no crap.”

It was so refreshingly clear and honest. No timid tip-toeing around the fragile student-writer ego, no making up one good thing to say for every bad thing, no convoluted expressions that allow you to say something stinks in the sweetest-smelling way.  I know with basic writers I need to be blunt because they listen to how you say things more than what you say, and an overly kindly criticism can sound like praise to them, but lately I’ve been wondering if that’s restricted to just basic writers.

Yet you really can break down the lines of communication by appearing to dismiss the writer with the writing, by appearing unapproachable, by giving the impression that you’re not only unwilling to be satisfied but that you have undecipherable standards.  So with this morning’s student, who is writing the course’s first paper and is a high school student with excellent English grades, I split the difference between the short, frank stomp and the tip-toe. The intro is terrible, so I say that, but I replace “crap” with a bit of an explanation of what the essay should be doing, and which I think the student knows it should be doing.

And I hope she doesn’t just perfume what is already on the page instead of dumping it all and starting with an actual idea.

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