Making mistakes

When it comes to writing, I’ve made plenty of mistakes over the years. One of the most dramatic mistakes I’ve made involved a college application essay. I was trying to say that I had experience public speaking, but I wrote that I had experience “pubic speaking.” Thankfully, I caught that error before I submitted the essay, but this just goes to show that sometimes a little typo can make a big difference (even if spell check won’t catch it).

Most of my errors aren’t as humorous as that one. Some mistakes, such as the use of passive voice or incorrect word choice, were easy enough to fix once a teacher or professor pointed them out to me. I remember when I came to college I was really worried when one professor told my class that he was known as a tough grader. He held up a purple pen and said, “My students call this the ‘purple pen of doom.’” I had never really received that kind of feedback on my writing before and so I was really nervous.

I had always been told I was a pretty good writer but I wasn’t sure if that would be true in college. I actually received a fair amount of positive feedback from my professor and he taught me a lot of what I know about writing. I realized that I had problems with paragraphs and dividing them appropriately, as well as other issues such as including signal phrases for quotations. This taught me details about the mechanics of writing that I had never been instructed in (or at the least had not retained). However, my professor balanced this constructive criticism with positive comments so overall this was a positive experience for me.

Another mistake that I became aware of later in my college career was my tendency to restate things in the same words at times and not include more details to support my view. Feedback from my professors has probably been the most helpful in showing me these errors, but I have also received helpful feedback from peer review sessions and my school’s writing center.

Now that I work in the writing center, I realize that it can be difficult to meet  a writer’s needs in a single session. For a paper that is four pages or under, we will usually meet for half an hour. This is not enough time to go over the paper with a fine toothed comb and discover every error at the sentence level. I may point out specific typos or problems with tense or word choice if I see them, but in a paper that suffers from a lack of organization or a weak thesis, sentence-level concerns are secondary and I do not want to distract the student from focusing on the more global concerns. If papers suffer from a lack of organization and coherence within the paragraphs or have clearly not been proofread and are missing words and phrases to the point that they are difficult to read and understand, these are problems that need to be addressed.

Sometimes I will see an unconventional grammatical construction in a paper and I will have to explain to the student why it’s not appropriate to use in an academic context. Sometimes it can be very difficult because I’m not exactly sure why it’s wrong. I just know that I’ve been told to edit similar sentences in my own writing or I’ve been told that usage is not standard, but I don’t know why. I don’t want to give a student fake reasons for why they shouldn’t use it in a paper but I don’t just want to say, “I think this is wrong… I just feel like it’s not right.” I usually try to explain the best that I can. Sometimes I have to think back to the context in which I originally learned that this was an error. Sometimes I see writing that is not appropriate simply because the sentence construction or word choice gives a colloquial rather than academic feel.

A writers, it can be tough not to get discouraged when other people point out our mistakes to us. It’s important to remember that everyone makes mistakes sometimes, even the most accomplished writers. Once we are aware of our mistakes, we can work to avoid them (maybe not in the first draft, but in the second or third…). Learning from our mistakes helps us to become better writers. For example, almost submitting that essay with “pubic” instead of “public” taught me the importance of proofreading.

One more thing about mistakes: we can’t be afraid to make them. Otherwise, that just causes us to become perfectionists, and that can be paralyzing. As Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus would say, “Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy!”

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