321: Teaching Writing to Teens

May 4, 2018 § 13 Comments

zz janpby Jan Priddy

Three to one is my ideal ratio of positive to negative comments to be given to teenage writers. Three blessings to each noted failing. Teenagers are fragile on the page. They feel their writing is them—that who they are and what they write are synonymous. They are afraid of revision. They think having to revise means they are stupid.

I know I should give them overwhelming affirmation compared to criticism, and though three to one is my ideal, I usually fail. The comments I make on their manuscripts are too often negative. I mark errors of syntax, verb tense, citation, and spelling. I note wordiness, sentences repeating information from a sentence immediately prior, and point out that “restating the thesis” demands different wording from what is found in the first paragraph. I flag errors of fact, fuzzy logic, and bad math. I ask for proof every time they claim “always” or “never.” I highlight their assumptions and uses of cliché that they are too young to know are cliché. I mark inaccurate margins, headings, and missing URLs. Sometimes I correct the spelling of my name in the heading. Sometimes I correct the spelling of the student’s name. I mark in any color other than red, usually purple or green.

I put checks in the margin when they make a strong point. I write “me too!” when I relate personally. I applaud beautiful structure and finely crafted sentences. “Yes!” I write in the margin. Then, when I make myself take the time, I write a short script telling them what worked in their essay. I assure them they are improving. They need this. They must learn to persist.

It’s not easy being a teenaged writer.

It will never become easy.

(Seriously, has it ever become easy for you?)

Last month I left home for three days and when I returned I found two acceptances and a request from an agent for a full manuscript. There was also a rejection waiting in my inbox, but I did not care. I was winning! Three to one. I was, everyone likes to point out, “on a roll.”

I desperately wanted everyone to be right that my future would be one publication after another, but I knew better. Rejection was just around the corner.

This past weekend, my husband and I took a day trip and I returned to three rejections and an acceptance. One of the rejections was particularly kind but included the word “quiet.” I get that all the time. My writing is “too quiet.” And I want to sit quietly in that quiet way that I have so often been told that I write and plea: I can’t write any louder.

I know most of my writing flaws because I have heard about them over and over. “What are you feeling?” I am asked when I thought that lying on the floor, eyes closed, my hand plucking at dust bunnies would be a clear indication that I am an emotional wreck. Do I need to say “I was too freaked out to function”?

Perhaps I could be clearer about my feelings.

But then, again, there was acceptance. Wasn’t there? If one in every four email notices was an acceptance, that would be spectacular. Ursula K. Le Guin once told me that she found it was initially easier to be a published poet than anything else, because journals publish more poetry than everything else put together. It was good advice and I have found it to be accurate. I know that need for praise. And who am I to feel sad about a 25% acceptance rate? It won’t last.

Today I will try to be more encouraging in response to the work of my teenaged students. They need to know what they do right so that they can do more of it. They need at least three to one positive to negative. Even in their weakness, I will tell them where they succeeded. I will emphasize writing as a process. I will discuss the essay with 32 drafts, the story with over 40. I will honor their intentions. They need to know their value.

And then I will stand up from my own metaphorical floor, spit out the dust bunnies, and get back to writing.
Jan Priddy’s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as the Brevity blog, The MacGuffinCALYXThe HumanistNorth American Review, and anthologies on running and race. Her work is forthcoming in Brevity magazine and Liminal. She earned BFAs in studio arts and an MFA in fiction from Pacific University. She lives and teaches in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon. Her new blog is https://janpriddyoregon.wordpress.com.


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§ 13 Responses to 321: Teaching Writing to Teens

  • Nicely said, Jan. I also find this with the adults I teach- a balance of three to one in my critique of their work is a good idea…the sensitive , vunerable part in all of us needs a lot of reinforcement!

  • Great piece, Jan. I’m with you! Like you, I avoid the use of red — with both my teenaged students and my adult editing clients.

  • Joanne says:

    Loved this, I relate to both the editor and the writer in you, and appreciated the reminder about the proportion of positive to negative comments. I’m editing (an older) student’s work right now, and I’m going to check that balance. Again 🙂

    • It is worthy work. And sometimes, when the mistake is the same one you marked on the last draft, it’s hard. (especially so when the mistake is my own and I know better.) We are all students forever when it comes to writing.

  • Jan, this is a lovely piece. Love the quiet feeling even in this piece. I understand the “too quiet” quality you speak of. (Also read essays on your blog.) My own writing tends in that direction. If I’m on the ground grasping at dust bunnies, the reader should understand. The reader needs to reach towards the writing and interact. Thanks for reminding me that we writers are vulnerable at any age.

  • Your manuscript editing comments are great reminders for me (and I’m not a teen). Love how you connected the fragility of teenage writers to your acceptance rate and need for praise. We’re all fragile on the page so thanks for your message of persistence!

    • Thank you. Some criticism rolls off my back, or I would like to think it does. The truth is something else—more often it sink right into my skin. It is impossible to keep going with such self-doubt, so it’s a good reminder that we are not our writing. Creator not created.

  • Chris Galvin says:

    These three lines nailed it:
    It’s not easy being a teenaged writer.
    It will never become easy.
    (Seriously, has it ever become easy for you?)
    An important read for writing teachers, writers, editors, peer writing groups, and anybody who gives any kind of critique.

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