Thursday, April 29, 2010

Can you "Grade" Creative Writing?

The answer to this question presupposes that you believe creative writing can be taught. You can assume I do, because I teach in a creative writing course! But I like the way we emphasise the word "professional" in the title of our course, because we all believe that part of our job is to teach students about the real world of writing and publishing - not in order to put them off, or make them give up, but to be realistic about what it means to be professional, and to become published.

I had a conversation today with two students about their Thursday morning subject, Industry Overview. We have a number of guest speakers in to talk about various writing and editing "jobs", and we also talk about getting published. Today we had two publishers/editors talking about what they do and how they do it, and it's entirely understandable that students go away feeling a bit depressed about how hard it all seems.

My answer to them started with "If it was easy, everyone would be doing it and it wouldn't mean anything". We all get rejections, especially in the beginning, and understanding how it all works, and how to get better - how to get "publishable" - is part of learning how to be a published writer. The exceptions really are the exceptions. Most writers spend a lot of years learning how to improve, and if you don't go in with the willingness to learn, you may have a very short writing career.

But the issue of grading comes into this, too. As teachers, we wrestle with this constantly. You could say "who are you to stick a grade on a short story or a poem?" and that is a good question. But we're teachers because we've been out there in the industry, we're published, we have (usually) a lot of years of experience behind us, and most importantly, we want to share that knowledge and help others (yes, there are some teachers who don't, so steer clear of them). We talk about assessment criteria, about that indefinable "wow" factor in a piece of writing, about revision and craft, and about students taking risks rather than writing safe.

What I have discovered over the years is that nearly all students want grades. They may not like getting a C instead of an HD, but they want to know where they are. It's human nature. In a professional course, regardless of all the helpful comments a teacher might make, or all the feedback in a workshop, a grade gives a writer an indication of where they are with that piece and what more needs to be done with it. I can't tell you how many times students have left their assignments in a box in our office, disregarding all the feedback we've spent a lot of time writing, all the suggestions, and just wanted THE GRADE. And the reality is: the grade is only one part of it. Every piece submitted is still a work in progress.

The grade tells you where you are now with that piece. But you as the writer decide where that piece will be in the next draft, the one after, and the one after that. I was at the Association of Writing Programs conference in Denver this month, and I went to all the sessions on grading and assessment. I was really interested in what other writing teachers thought about this, how they approached it, and discovered we all had similar experiences. I did get a lot of great ideas about how to further refine my processes and relate this to students. But someone raised a really good question - how do you grade a work in progress?

And the answer is - you grade it as a work in progress. We often see students workshop a story or a poem, then put it in for their final assignment with hardly anything changed, despite having received some really good feedback and suggestions. I liked what one person suggested. She gives first drafts a grade based on that version, and discusses with the student how they can go about revising in order to improve that grade. Yes, a bit of a carrot and stick process. But it feels like the process you go through in order to get published. Yes, this draft has potential, but it needs this and this and this, and then it might be publishable. That's a carrot most writers understand!

Have you ever done some kind of writing course? Did you get grades? What did you think about grades and the value you placed on them? I'd love to hear the student's point of view. (And yes, I have been a student - I love being a student - and I like getting grades, too. But I like constructive comments even better.)
And by the way, you've got one more day to put your hat in the ring to win a picture book - see the post below.


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