Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Comfort in the Writing Center: Why I Never Went

I'm a pretty happy guy. When I'm sitting at the desk in the Writing Center, I smile at people who walk by. Basically, I look like this:

Though, unlike the bow-tied Dwight Schrute, I keep it casual.

Some people smile back, and some are too focused on their destination to notice the smiling weirdo. But every now and then, a passerby will look up, see me smiling, and turn away quickly.

I'm not a stranger to people avoiding me, but usually it's because they're just embarrassed to be my friend. Plenty of people avoided being seen with me from around December through February because I was the only person on campus still wearing flip flops every day. However, these students turning away and avoiding eye contact is a bit different. They can't even see my flip flops. These are students who don't want to be pulled into the Writing Center. I remember being that person.

When I was an undergrad here at EIU, I would walk by the writing center on my way to class each day. Every now and then, I'd look in to see what was going on, but I made sure to avoid eye contact with whoever was sitting at the desk.

I feared that they would pull me in. I thought that their eyes were insisting, that they were telling me I couldn't write. Theirs were eyes that said, "Look at the English major who needs help writing his papers!"

Even if they didn't think this way, I was sure that my peers would talk about me going to the writing center. I knew they'd doubt my ability to write the right words, punctuate my own sentences, and come up with my own ideas. I mean, if I couldn't write, why I was an English major in the first place?

I don't know if that's what all averting eyes are afraid of, but I can and will admit that mine were. I wanted to prove to everyone--not that anyone cared--that I could write my own papers. I didn't need help.

But I did. I've looked back at many of my undergrad papers. Trust me, I could have--and should have--used the help.

As a grad student, I ask my friends and colleagues, many of whom work with me in the Writing Center, for help. Do they judge me? Nope. They're in there too. In fact, when a colleague comes to me for help, I know that they're trying to write a better paper and be a better writer. I don't scoff at them for wanting assistance; I'm impressed by the initiative they've shown by seeking out resources that can help them improve.

Those of us who work in the Writing Center know that getting someone else to look at our writing helps. We have our own set of grad-student eyes, but it always helps to have someone else look at your work. And I'm happy I've realized that.

But I wish I'd realized it a long time ago.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Two Tips for Giving Peer Feedback

Maybe you're part of a writing group, a student in a creative writing workshop, or just peer-editing a friend's paper. No matter your situation, we at the Writing Center know how complicated it can be to give honest, helpful feedback.

These two tips should help you to be help others--without making enemies.

1. Set Feedback Rules

For beginning writers especially, good taste in writing comes easier than actually being able to create good writing. It means you probably won't like each other's work the way you like other things you've read. Discussing problems with a story may become easier than discussing strengths.

But as long as you know each other's boundaries, you can navigate this terrain. Ask each member if they want both positive and negative feedback. If they are ready for negative feedback, ask them if they prefer observations or advice. Trying to prescribe solutions may take away the fun and independence of writing from the writer.

I, for example, have never once used the solution that someone else came up with. Now, I don't know if that's because of pride or because others simply can't rewrite your story the way that you can, but it doesn't matter. Advice works better when it's invited.

Also, be sure to consider how your discussions begin and end. Would you rather dig into the opportunities for improvement first or after a little buffer of praise? The sandwich method (praise, problems, praise) may sound good, but it can be hard to pay attention to encouragement after your peers have pointed out a weak spot in the writing. That said, who wants to end on a bad note?

2. Believe in Your Peers

In writing groups, what I worry about is not taking a risk and failing. After about six workshops, I've come to accept that a lot of my risks will fail. What I worry about is the way people in workshops take the group setting as permission to turn off their trusting side.

When we read published writers, we often accept that our confusion may be our own fault. Now, you may not be in a group of published writers, but that shouldn't stop you from reading with belief in every writer's abilities.

I know it's easier to read a peer's work with probably too much awareness that the author is in a group designed for writers who want to improve. Yes, pointing out issues can help the writer, but confusing sections may smooth themselves out, given enough time.

It's a good reading practice to suspend your disbelief the first time you read a piece. Be a believer. Trust the writer. Then reread the document with a more critical eye.

In my first workshop, I fell victim to that kind of doubt in myself and everyone else. "It's not like any of us are one of the greats," I thought. So why should any of us get a free pass?

But who needs that attitude?

Tell yourself that the writer did everything for a reason. Respect the writer's authority, just as you would want them to respect yours. For the first reading at least, treat them like a prophet with a direct line to Truth. Treat 'em like one of the greats.

Ever since I started reading this way, I write better feedback. My peers seem happier. And best of all, every time I go to a workshop, I get to surround myself with prophets, with the greats.