On Precision

 I was just adding an assignment on metaphor to my poetry class site and used this photo. I think it says something about attention and longing while also showing two sleek creatures who are satisfied with their world. Ultimately, it is not about cats at all, which makes it a good photo to use for a metaphor assignment.

What doesn’t show in the photo is that I took pictures two days running at this time, hoping to get just the right muscular tilt in the orange cat’s neck and ears. The middle shot on the second day got what I wanted. The photos right before and right after are almost the same, but lack the precision, the accurate depiction of a specific act that I wanted.

When I teach writing, that is the level of care I hope for–and often get–from students. Whether academic or creative writing, precise use of language is a key element of success. The dreadful “In today”s society” openings that we, as teachers, mourn, are usually included because they once gained praise. Since my requirements are different than those of say, a middle school teacher giving a writing assignment, I see this kind of generalized opening as a photo out of focus, or even a subject that gained applause long ago, but now is sold half-price in the poster rack at Walmart. Getting just the right words takes repeated effort, usually at more than one sitting.

I am teaching three writing classes this semester: Intro to Composition (for those who did not test into Writing I), Intro to Creative Writing/ Poetry, and Writing II for Graduate/Professional Schools (mostly juniors and seniors thinking of graduate school). They are very different classes, but teaching them at the same time gives me a unique chance to compare how students think about writing at different points in their academic career. Of course the writing is stronger in a 300-level course than in a 200 or 100, but similarities remain. All three classes balk at revision, seeing it as a mark of failure.

Now, most of the 100 students readily “revise” because they know their writing is not as smooth or as well organized as it should be. However, they tend to equate future success with not having to do that anymore. They hear me say that I still revise, going through multiple revisions for every article, book, or poem I write, but their eyes don’t believe it. I sat next to each one this week with their review essay drafts up on their screens, and all needed revising, not just correcting. What I need them to know is that this is NOT a failure on their part. This is how writing works.

At the other end of the college years are the students who never got feedback because their writing worked fine on the surface level. SIngle drafting for them was a successful method. Unfortunately, the day will come when the subject requires more than an instamatic camera and its time to pull out the single-lens reflex camera that they don’t own. Sure, they could have bought one with their student discount, but….Oh, well. Enough of that metaphor. Just one more try: if students go for the SLR camera as freshmen and continue to use it consistently every year they are in college, they will produce better photos that those who limp along with a fixed-focus camera. Relying on revision as a tool, not a punishment, leads to a better “eye” for precise language and argument.

Posted by

Author of the poetry collection The Tethered Ground and Professor of English at Missouri State University. Contact me for readings or for workshops on writing/publishing and on teaching writing online.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s