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10:57 a.m. - 2013-02-06
on writing well
A found out on Saturday that her grandma is probably dying. She told me on the phone (when I pried, because I could tell from her voice something was wrong), and she let me come see her even though she was, as she put it, a mess. She told me that was a first for her. She told me it's the first time in her life she's ever had somebody to talk to about someone dying, including her mom.

I think that's really sad.

In the middle of her talking to me about her grandma, and me trying to comfort her, she insisted that I read her first English Comp. essay and critique it.

I mentioned in the last entry that she's got her own little spelling and grammar issues -- not a lot of them, but a few? But other than that, she's a pretty good writer?


Apparently she's good at e-mail, online journal and fiction writing, but essays are another story. It was a lot worse than I expected. I mean, a LOT worse.

"So, really, what kind of feedback do you want from me?" I said, casually, after I'd finished reading it.

"Everything," she said.

Oh great, I thought. Your grandma's dying, and you want your girlfriend to shred your writing on top of that? Seriously?

"How much time do you want to spend?" I said.

"That bad, huh?" she said.

Funny thing is, A and I have talked more than once about how criticism is a gift to a writer, and feedback like "It's great; I wouldn't change a thing" is a lot less valuable.

I told her she should look forward to getting her papers slashed up with red pen because that kind of dissection will make her a better writer -- which is the point of taking the class, right?

At the time, it never occurred to me that I might be the one doing the slashing.

Cornered by my grieving girlfriend and her wholesale butchering of the English language, I figured I had two options: Softpedal ("Well, there are some punctuation errors but otherwise it's good") or, well ... give her what she asked for, which was my honest opinion.

I didn't say it sucked, of course. I said there were a couple of different issues. I think I said her writing was convoluted. I didn't say it was incomprehensible.

I think she got the message, though, when I asked her, "Can you tell me, in one sentence, just talking to me, what this essay is ABOUT?"

That's a question -- substitute "article" for "essay" -- that I used to use on reporters eons ago, when I was a 23-year-old editor learning by trial and error.

That question, I discovered, is actually really effective in eliciting better writing. Chances are, what a writer SAYS in answer to that question is what he/she should have written in his/her lede.

In this case, A responded that the author of the essay (to which she was writing a response) was a narrow-minded, Bible-thumping elitist asshole.

"Good," I said. "That's how you should start your essay."

Of course we ended up toning it down, but she got the idea. I think.

Other than that, I discovered that my writing coaching skills have gotten very, very rusty. It's been a long time since I've tried to teach anyone how to write. I felt like I was confusing her and explaining things badly. I've spent the last couple of days thinking about that, and the techniques I used to use. Hopefully, next time I'll do better.

My awesome girlfriend didn't take it personally, even on one of the worst days she's had since I've known her. I adore that chick.



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