I used to correct my family’s grammar aloud all the time. I would physically react to a “Your welcome” text, and if someone used the wrong there/their/they’re, my esteem for them lowered dramatically at least for the day. I could never figure out why people were so upset that I pointed out these grammatical errors; I thought everyone should know these rules, and should use them perfectly.
Just the other day, I worked with a writer at the UNL writing center whose first language was not English. This writer informed me that his professor sent him to the writing center to edit the grammar and clarity of a poster he had already presented. As I read his poster, I found myself getting annoyed at the writer’s professor. Sure there were grammatical errors—changing tenses in the middle of a sentence, lack of periods at the end of a sentence—but I could understand everything perfectly well. The poster was not lacking clarity, it was not lacking information, it was not lacking interest. All it lacked was perfect grammar.
All I could doto assuage the writer’s frustration was praise the poster, even though I had to point out the minor issues for his professor’s sake. I realized after this conversation that my worldview, at least when it comes to writing, has completely changed over the last few years.
Reading Donald A. Daiker’s “Learning to Praise” points out, “The distrust of praise among American writers abroad seems to have rubbed off on composition teachers at home” (153). I fell into this trap because my high school teachers would find three grammatical errors and point these out without once complimenting my argument or a nice sentence here and there.
Then I became the copy editor of my school’s newspaper, The Network, and my advisor reminded me to compliment parts of the article that were particularly good. For the first time in my life, I did not “find error more attractive than excellence” (Daiker 153). In fact, finding the good parts was much more rewarding than correcting AP style mistakes or awkward sentences.
Soon, my fellow journalists were telling me how much they loved the positive comments I
wrote on their pages. They said the amount of writing on their papers daunted them, especially when I edited in the alarming color of orange, but because I at least ended with a positive comment, they knew everything was alright. Even though I was only the editor, I understood “The art of the teacher—at its best—is the reinforcement of good things” (Daiker 155). And actually, by doing this, I noticed by the end of the year that most of my peers’ writing has improved.
For as long as I’ve been able to form my own opinions, I have had a lot of bones to pick with the American education system. The fact that most “college composition teachers find error more attractive than excellence” (Daiker 153) has been proven to me over and over again, both through my own experience and conversations with others. The ESL writer who came to talk to me about his poster’s grammar had an excellent and easy-to-understand poster. I felt like I had to take on the role of “praiser” because the professor didn’t point out any of the things this student did right, and the professor should have. This student is doing something so brave—creating an academic piece in a new language—and this alone deserves praise and encouragement.
In his article, Daiker also discusses “writing apprehension” and the “connection between writing apprehension and teacher response” (156). So many people hate writing, which makes me incredibly broken-hearted, because I know these people have something important to say to the world. Because writing teachers more readily—and perhaps more easily—point out writing errors, it’s easy for students to become insecure about their writing.
Student writers will be less likely to take risks in their writing, but taking risks is how we learn. “It seems clear that we have been better trained to spot comma splices and fragments and other syntactic slips than to notice when students take risks” (Daiker 161). Because grammar has such clear-cut rules, it’s easier to notice these errors. However, taking risks, even if they do not always work well, should be praised and complimented.
No one has gotten very far without taking risks, and making students afraid to take risks will bleed into the rest of their lives. Pointing out the smallest errors will stick with a student for a long time.
However, a little praise can also go a long way. As Daiker says, “It’s a good bet that genuine praise can lift the hearts, as well as the pens, of the writers who sit in our own
classrooms, too” (162). Even though I still notice grammatical errors, and sometimes I am tempted to focus on these mistakes, I truly believe that getting excited about someone’s writing or research and complimenting what they’ve done well can be monumental in anyone’s writing process.
Just because someone used “your” instead of “you’re” does not mean I can’t understand what they intended to say. This person is giving me their trust, sharing their writing with me, and if all I do is pick it apart, no one is going to be very happy by the end of it. Showing genuine excitement and praise, however, benefits both the writer and the consultant. I always feel that I have done more to help someone if I praise alongside criticizing their work. Of course, pointing out errors can be important and necessary, but it should never be the only focus.
I’m sure I have broken some grammar rule that will bug the heck out of someone reading this post, but my message is clear, and I’ve taken the risk of posting this online for the whole world to see even though it might not be perfect. (Even though the perfectionist inside me is screaming to edit this at least five more times.)
All writing is art, even a lab report or a research poster, and art is not supposed to be perfect. Art is supposed to take risks, inspire thoughts and emotions—and just because you’re missing a comma here and a capital letter there, does not mean I value your contribution any less. These last few years have been a long journey to shut up my inner editor, and though I’m not quite there yet, I could not have done it without the wonderful writing of my peers.
Thank you, to all the writers out there, who have taught me that perfection does not mean excellence.