How to Read Student Writing for Content

I encourage instructors, tutors, and education students to train themselves to read student writing for content (or Higher Order Concerns) rather than error (or Lower Order Concerns). After reading Joseph Williams’ “The Phenomenology of Error,” in which he observes that “if we read any text the way we read freshman essays, we will find many of the same kind of errors we routinely expect to find and therefore do find,“ they usually agree with me that reading for content is a good idea–“But how can I do that when there are so many errors?” they ask.  

You have to train yourself. This is something I learned from Janice Neuleib, who told me to learn to read at two levels, which she called “ground level” and “25,000 feet.” Ground level is where you notice the grammar, usage, mechanics, etc. and 25,000 feet is where you notice the big picture stuff. As I’ve trained myself to read at these two levels, I’ve added a third, which I call “10,000 feet”; at this level, I notice stylistic aspects of a piece of writing, such as sentence structure (not grammar! I mean aspects such as whether or not sentences are hypotactic or paratactic, running or periodic, noun-based or verb-based).

Here are some steps I suggest you take if you’d like to train yourself to read at Neuleib’s two levels or my three levels:

  1. Begin by asking students to format their writing in a way that suggests it should be read for content—i.e. single spaced.
  2. Think of what you are about to do as “respond to student writing” rather than “grade papers” or “correct papers.” Frame the task in terms of responding rather than fixing or judging.
  3. Read student writing under conditions that are similar to those in which you read for pleasure. For me, this means at a coffee shop or at home in a comfortable chair.
  4. Read the paper once for each level you are reading at, so that your brain can focus on one task—reading for content or reading for surface error (or reading for style, if you add the third level). For the 25,000 foot reading, I read fairly quickly, picking up ideas and concepts and noticing how they are developed throughout the piece of writing. For the 10,000 foot reading, I read fairly quickly, stopping at a random point on each page to read sentences carefully. For the ground level reading, I read one page carefully (yes, only one page, because I am looking for patterns of error to highlight for the student, not proofreading—which, after all, is the student’s job, not mine).

If you try to build this habit into your practice, give it at least 30 repetitions before it feels even remotely natural. Like all habits, it takes time to make it feel “normal.” (And by 30 repetitions, I mean responding to 30 sets of papers).

Time Management for Writers

Time management is a skill often overlooked by writers, and oddly, many writers I’ve worked with not only lack time management skills, but take pride in their lack of time management skills. It seems to be a badge of honor among writers to be able to produce a good piece of writing at the last minute, fueled by deadline pressure and a near-lethal combination of caffeine, alcohol, and insomnia.

A former student told me recently that he loves that crazed feeling he gets when the deadline is looming and he just pounds out a draft in a few hours—he actually chases it, he said, like an addict chases down a fix. “But now that I’m getting older and am married and thinking about starting a family,” he confessed, “a less insane writing practice is becoming more attractive to me.”

Enter time management skills. I’ve had phenomenal results with David Allen’s Getting Things Done program and Julie Morgenstern’s Time Management from the Inside Out, but I think what matters more than the specific time management or productivity plan that you choose is that you choose one. Any one. Any plan is better than no plan.

For writers, I recommend the following as non-negotiable aspects of your time management plan:

  • Keep a calendar. It doesn’t matter if it’s on your phone or computer or a hard copy. Don’t clog up your valuable brain space by trying to remember your schedule, deadlines, and appointments. You won’t.
  • Break writing projects into small, measurable chunks. For example, “write story” can be broken down into sketching out particular characters and the setting, writing a shitty first draft, revising the shitty first  draft, getting feedback from readers, and revising again. Plan a specific time to work on each chunk and put an appointment in your calendar to work on that chunk—and then, honor the appointment. Let me repeat that, because it’s crucial: honor the appointment.
  • Keep a log of when and where you write, what you work on, and how productive you are. Every couple of weeks, look over the log for patterns, and then make changes to your habits based on the patterns you notice. For example, if you notice that you seem to be more productive at a certain time of the day, plan to write more during that time of day and less at other times. For some more information on keeping a writing log, read Pearl Luke’s “A Writing Log Marks You as a Professional.” 

Read to Improve Your Writing

The most important piece of advice I offer aspiring writers is to read widely in the genre in which you want to write. If you want to write novels, read novels. If you want to write poems, read poems. If you want to write travelogues, read travelogues. Read them as an apprentice, an idea Jack Rawlins describes in early editions of his book, The Writer’s Way. By “read like an apprentice,” I take Rawlins to mean reading with an eye toward noticing and figuring out

    • How does the piece work? What holds it together? What moves it forward?
    • What are the techniques and strategies the author uses?
    • What are the effects of these techniques and strategies?
    • How could I use these techniques and strategies in my own writing?

One way to understand deeply the techniques and strategies the author uses is to actually copy the piece, either by hand or by retyping it. Copying allows you to begin internalizing the word choices and sentence structures of the author. Fiction writer Donald Ray Pollock discusses this technique in an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air (listen to the interview).

I like to take the apprenticeship idea a little further and have students do imitation exercises. After you’ve read something like an apprenticeship, choose a passage you particularly like and write an imitation of it. Here are instructions for writing an imitation.

It doesn’t matter which genre you want to write in–poetry, fiction, academic essays, whatever–reading like an apprentice, copying, and imitating can help you improve your writing.