Thursday, March 31, 2011

Invisible Errors

If you heard what sounded like a clap of thunder earlier this week, it might have been the sound of self-published author Jacqueline Howett's intended career imploding.

In response to this review by BigAl's Books, Ms. Howett appears to have had something of a public meltdown. She rained hostility on Big Al, and became an Internet sensation -- and not in a good way. She started the day with a review that said her book, The Greek Seaman, had a good story but needed to be better edited. Her day ended ... well, it was a train wreck. If you want to see it, click the previous link and read the discussion thread below the review. It's ghastly.

As a teacher of writing, I have email conversations similar to that discussion thread at least once a term, but they're private. (If they ever went public, the students involved would almost certainly become unfortunate celebrities like Howett.) Most students are great. But a few students every year react to my evaluations of their work almost exactly as Ms. Howett reacted to that review.

It's easy to pick on Howett and those rare explosive students for their manners, or their lack of self-control.

But there's another issue, and it's one that affects even the well-behaved, mature students: It's called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Simply put, people who have difficulty putting sentences together often think their sentences are just fine. Like Ms. Howett, they simply don't see what the problems are. They may react politely and professionally to reviews or grades, but they're still mystified and quietly suspect that the reviewer/grader is being unfair. This is a tough situation to be in: To recognize that the feedback is accurate, they first need to be competent, but to become competent, they need to take the feedback seriously. It can prove to be a nasty Catch-22.

Ms. Howett's sentences -- the ones that the reviewer quotes and that Ms. Howett says are fine -- have serious articulation problems. The reviewer isn't just being picky. The sentences don't make sense. We can guess (maybe) about what she intended to say, but we have to do a bit of thinking to puzzle it out. Writing teachers see a lot of those sentences in student papers -- sentences that make only the vaguest or fuzziest sense, or which fall apart as soon as one starts trying to decipher them. When the sentences are truly riddled with problems, we'll mark them as "awkward" or "unclear" or we'll scribble a question mark in the margins, or we'll diagnose them more specifically as mixed constructions or as word-choice errors. But for most students, these remarks are themselves unclear. Students look at them, scratch their heads, and figure, "Well, the prof is just a grammar Nazi, I guess."

Bridging that communication gap is insanely difficult. It's like trying to explain to a person who was born blind how to adjust the color on a high-definition television so that Avatar looks right. There's a right or wrong answer, and it matters, but the person on the other end can't see the difference. The only way I've seen to explain articulation is to provide comparisons.

For instance, here's a sentence from Ms. Howett's novel:

Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance.

Here's a revised version of that sentence:

Mesmerized by Gino's ability to balance coffee cups on a platter, Don and Katy silently watched him put cups at a nearby table.

Neither sentence is very good. But which one is better? Most people will pick the second one. It's much more clear. The first sentence is a disorganized jumble, with adverbs badly misplaced. In order to spot the problems in the first version, you need to be capable of coming up with something like the second sentence. That's the challenge for editors, reviewers, and teachers who are working with new writers. How do you tell a person what's wrong with a sentence without doing all the rewriting yourself? I still don't have very good answers to that question.

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