Once A Writing Teacher

I no longer teach writing for a living. I still write. That's more what my job entails now whereas it was just a benefit of the job I used to have. Teaching writing, I found it useless to ask kids to do as I said. They didn't much listen to me. But they sure watched me carefully. "Yo, what's up with that weird ass pen?" they asked about my fountain pen. "What the fuck do you have to write about in all them pages?" they wondered seeing my writer's notebook. "You like writing? That's straight up bullshit, nigga," to which I shrugged and admitted my guilt. In class, I wrote to show them about writing, but I also just wanted time with my pen. There are few things, yo, I like better than filling pages with my thoughts, and that's no bullshit, nigga. No bullshit whatsoever.

Though I'm out of the classroom, I still have opportunities and some obligation to teach writing. Yesterday, a colleague asked me to review a piece they had written. (I'm using the plural pronoun for anonymity.) They sent me a draft of something they needed to get right. Would I look it over? Sure, I said, but with some trepidation.

Here's the thing: most people don't separate their writing from themselves or their selves from their writing. Kids in school are often better at this than adults. Maybe kids are more used to it or I built relationships I haven't yet had time to build with colleagues. Whatever the case, I know that when asked to look over a colleague's writing, they're asking me to correct typos and then say it's great. If I was still in school, I could get away with that.

(In school I often told students their drafts were better than they really were. This softened things enough that they could listen to the single bit of criticism they most needed to hear. Rather than say an entire piece was out of order, convoluted, and unbelievable, I focused on the sound of the opening and how it related (or didn't relate) to what came next. Your piece is good got us to where I could teach them something.)

I do some of that with adults too. Yesterday, I said (mostly in truth) that they had written a complete, exact, and authoritative piece. Then I said, it's too long. Length matters. (Damn it.) In the case of writing, shorter is better than longer. What's true in the other realms, I don't want to consider here.

Prior to this paragraph, the first draft of this piece was 626 words long. That's not bad. Anything under a thousand is about right for me though I believe anything online that's over seven hundred words won't be read top to bottom. I don't fuss over word count yet. I haven't finished whatever I'm going to say. (Note that I don't know what I'll say until I've said all of it. I begin with an idea, but writing shapes that idea and the shape of writing it. For instance, I had no idea this would have so many damn parentheticals.) I'll keep writing until I've said whatever it is I end up saying.

Then I'll prune the living crap out of it.

In my mother's front lawn is a shrub that was half again as tall and a third again as wide. It had grown to obscure Mom's window and taken over the garden. My brother took it way down and the whole place is better for it.

It will be the same with this piece. (The 626 words became 431.)

It was the same with my colleagues' piece. I told them to remember that people need the fewest words and shortest draft possible. I put that very delicately but still worried sending that email — an email I cut by one quarter in the second draft.

The delicacy of that email grew from knowing how people conflate their identity with their writing. They should because I perceive who people are from how they present. I once worked with a spectacular person who could not spell. His writing would have embarrassed us both he was aware (and secure) enough to have me rewrite his stuff. Maybe my colleague now will be open to learning how to be concise. Maybe not.

I started this by saying I no longer teach writing. I hear you calling bullshit on that, yo. I'd revise the beginning, but instead I'll focus on pruning (significantly) and leave the beginning so as to set up this ending. If that's wrong, someone will let me know. Probably by saying, Brian, this is good piece and you're a good guy. Now about that beginning paragraph...

I have no idea if Alan Jacobs reads this blog (I'd like to think that he does and you should definitely read his), but this appeared the next day. Coincidence? Yeah, probably. Still, I like to dream.