Friday, April 11, 2014

Lessons from an Aspiring Author

I'm an aspiring author. About a month ago, I finished the writing phase of my book and have now put it in the hands of people who have graciously offered to proofread it and edit it.

My book is actually a rewrite of the blog I wrote while we were in the process of adopting our daughter from South Korea. To say that it's important to me is an understatement. Becoming a dad is the single most cool thing I've ever done, and it's all there in the blog/book.  I spent hours writing it, then hours rewriting it and editing it.

My first editor/proofreader got back to me last week with her suggestions.  Gulp! I had a lot of mistakes. I was told about picky punctuation and grammar errors. I was told I needed more ebb and flow of emotion. I was reminded to move the plot forward and avoid unimportant side stories and minor characters. She was absolutely right. She discovered my laziness in sentence structure, writing skills, and proofreading.

But it hurt.

I had this sick feeling in my gut. I wanted to defend every mistake, every post, and every person named. Instead, I sucked in a deep gulp of air, wrote her a thank you email and a glowing review for her personal job search, and decided to attack the manuscript anew with her suggestions in mind.

My book will be better because of her input.

Years ago, I was a sixth grade language arts teacher. My students did a ton of writing, and I graded with a fine-toothed comb. I was famous (or infamous) for being super picky.

The capstone project of sixth grade was a Country Report that took a full six weeks to research and write. Students and parents poured hours into the process and became an expert on that country. Then, I got my hands and my red pen (or whatever color I had handy that year) on it and found mistakes all over the place. I reasoned that students were required three proofreaders and were allowed as many as they wanted. After all, they had numerous opportunities to fix mistakes before I found them.

However, I trampled on their babies.

I don't think I fully comprehended how they and their parents felt till I got my list of mistakes back from my proofreader. Don't get me wrong, I still think teachers need to point out mistakes and help students fix them. I still think students need to be held to a high standard. But now I know about that sick feeling in the gut.

The other day, my daughter fell on her bike. As I was helping her up, someone popped his head out from behind a nearby house. "Mr. Dunlap?" It was a former student I hadn't seen in years. He was only in our private school for two years, and he wasn't exactly known for being conscientious about his work.  "I learned more in my time with you than I did anywhere else. You really stuck with it."  I'll remember that conversation for years to come.

There is a constant tug of war between holding students to a high standard and helping them see the worth in their work. I spent most of my career lopsided on the high standard side.

If I could have those years back, I would try to work in more coaching sessions to help students make their work better. My excuse would have been that it would be too time-consuming to coach 50 students on their 10-page papers, and I would have been completely right.  Maybe I could have coached them on two or three random paragraphs to show them how to make things better.

Since I can't have those years back, I need to take these lessons into future projects I have with students. It's always better to help lift students to those high standards than judge them when they don't get there.

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