When I read Laurence Musgrove’s IHE piece “The Real Reasons Students Can’t Write” last week, my reaction to it was, not surprisingly, similar to the reactions of Steve Krause and Mike Garcia. As I read it, Ed White’s recent invoking of Peter Elbow on WPA-L came to mind. White reminded us of Elbow’s argument that we shouldn’t use revision as punishment, that we shouldn’t revise our “bad” writing, but, rather, that we should use revision to make our good writing better.
As much as I agree with that notion, however, we’re not always left with the option of revising our best work, or even good work. Sometimes, we’re stuck with the crap we’ve got. And that’s the problem Musgrove is trying to solve. As states in the piece, most student errors are the result of not caring about the writing or not noticing the error in that particular instance rather than not knowing how to write.
Musgrove’s answer to making students care–the writing ticket–can’t be a good solution. While punishment can be a strong motivation to reduce error, the reliance upon a system of negative feedback, of punishment, is going to teach students, especially students who need the most writing instruction, to write as little as possible and to avoid writing whenever possible.
If the problem here is with error, maybe a better solution would be to increase training in editing distinct and separate from writing and revision. Yes, editing is part of the writing process, but editing is also a distinct craft and most professional writers have editors who edit their work because it’s understood that even the best writers make and fail to catch errors. Not everyone is cut out to be a good editor–I’m pretty sure I’m not–but we can all learn how to systematically scan a piece for error. Done well, this separates revision from editing, revision from the elimination of error, and it directly addresses editing as a rhetorical act along the lines of Joseph Williams’ “The Phenomenology of Error.”