The Paragraph Plague

Writing is hard. Plagues are bad. Poor writing habits left unchecked can spread and doom an entire civilization. Ok, that’s a bit “extra”, but not really.

plague doctor

Learning a new style of writing is challenging. Revising your writing can be even more difficult. Accepting criticism about your writing can taste like a spoonful of medicine. But how can we improve and heal if we don’t keep trying or listen to the feedback we’re given even when it’s unpleasant?

Per my last blog — New Year, New Ewe I resolved, to hold a paragraph workshop. We spent an entire 90 minute class period deconstructing their old final exam paragraphs, editing, planning and revising. It went well — they were focused. They turned them in. I read. I fell ill.

I realized the workshop, a desperate ER visit, wasn’t a cure for the paragraph plague. Improving their persuasive writing style was going to take more than one shot. My students needed further rehabilitation. I refused to allow their symptoms to linger.

Epiphany — I will hold one on one writing conferences with each student!

The majority of their paragraphs were loaded with errors and oversights, weaknesses and wordiness — I was determined to point them all out. The students approached the conference table gingerly and limped away, crutchless, completely dejected from the entire experience.

What was I doing wrong? I had diagnosed their problems and prescribed the treatment, why wasn’t it working? This wasn’t the plan! I’m trying to fix them!

Finally a stronger paragraph lay before me which contained an insightful phrase giving hope for healing — “making slavery a stain that was hard to remove”. I shared my joy and benign prognosis with the student as soon as she sat down. She beamed. I gave a few helpful criticisms and reiterated my adoration for her written expression. She left delighted, the picture of good health. What a difference!

Epiphany! Find at least one positive comment to share along with a few critical comments. Can’t fix all the symptoms with the first dose of medicine!

My colleague and GMWP teacher, Jen Doucette shared this very idea in her first blog post. How could I forget?! They are fragile and need validation for their writing to develop.

What do we need, even crave when we’re trying something new, something challenging? We need affirmation. For some of us, self-affirmation is enough, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it, people like me.” — Stuart Smalley, aka Minnesota Democratic Senator Al Franken and former Saturday Night Live comedian.

We’re all vulnerable because we’re human. Sometimes self-affirmation isn’t enough and we need something more, affirmation from others. We might want to hold a rally of our raucous supporters, surrounding us, chanting our name while simultaneously jeering every critic, but that’s not probable, rational, or healthy. Instead, we live in reality with the wisdom of the Rolling Stones, “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes well you might find, you get what you need.”

What we need is a word of encouragement, supportive suggestions. It might be as simple as a smile, a thumbs up or a compliment, but it may be just the thing that keeps us going.

I will ask my students what they need depending on what stage their writing is in. Again in her TW, Jen Doucette shared her “go-to” Writing Feedback Protocols. I will ask students to determine what role they want me to play in evaluating their writing and offer praise along with pointers, hope before treatment.

It may be a bitter pill for them today, but maybe four years from now or so they’ll thank me for it. Until then, I’ll continue to fight the good fight —trying to save the whole world from the paragraph plague. I wonder if Al Franken makes house calls…