- A venerable Mina Shaughnessy-inspired exercise that would have had me counting the numbers of errors and keeping a chart of them so that I could then comment on papers by saying things like "Great job! You have 4 fewer apostrophe errors than before!" At least I think this was the idea, because I never followed through with it, because here (although no one asked) is my philosophy of teaching writing: You and I are working together to make you, the student, a better writer. Any exercise that makes me spend more time on your writing than you do by keeping such charts on your writing makes me the owner of your writing, not you. But successful writers have to own their writing, warts and all, or it isn't theirs. If you want to be a successful writer, you have to take responsibility for your writing, and this kind of record-keeping (which I'd find a little creepy and humiliating if I were the student) makes your writing my responsibility and undermines your success.
- An opposing philosophy that said, in effect, don't pay attention to things like agreement errors ("his, her, their--what's the difference? The language is changing! Get with the program!"), apostrophe errors ("It's dropping out of the language anyway"), and comma splices. If the students wrote enough, they would figure it out eventually, and, given that explanations that didn't rise out of their own experience were useless, it was best to spend the time on writing rather than explanations. Focus on content, not on style--or, to reverse an old saying, "Count the pounds, and the pence will take care of themselves." I do believe in focusing on content, but I also comment on structure, punctuation, sentence construction, and style.
No, what I'm saying is that some juniors and seniors come in as if they have been given a magic box of writing talent that they carry into the classroom with them by virtue of their standing as juniors and seniors. This magic box, or certificate, or whatever it is, doesn't need to be opened and erases the need for comments on grammar, style, and punctuation. They're then shocked, and not in a good way, when they get their first papers back and see that comma splices, misplaced quotation marks, and labored sentences have been marked and do count, along with the ideas in the paper. "No one's ever told me not to do that before," some will say (which may not be the case), or "I didn't know you'd be looking at punctuation."
But the thing I want to convey to them is this: no one ever gets a magic box of writing talent, at least one that doesn't have to be opened occasionally to brush up the talents within. It's in fact not a magic box but a toolbox that has to be used consciously, with additions made throughout a writer's lifetime. The tools are accumulated through contact with teachers and editors and the editorial self, who may be even more attuned than editors to the stylistic tricks that a writer overuses ("not just as . . . so too again!"). It's a toolbox and not a magic box because writing is work, not magic, and it's work we all need to learn how to do.