Responding versus proofreading in the writing process is an important distinction to make.
Proofreading is done right before you create your final draft. It’s when you look for all those pesky errors like run-on sentences and misspelled words.
Responding, on the other hand, is done earlier during the revision stage. The emphasis is on organization, concepts, and transitions, in other words, the ideas presented in the writing.
After all, isn’t THAT why we write — to express ideas?
Not a few times in China, I have encountered a situation that is applicable to the writing process.
(I make plenty of mistakes with my childish Mandarin, but I can get my basic meaning across most of the time. This story is not to brag, but to illustrate a point.)
Imagine me, blonde hair and all, doing my best to communicate with someone in her language (my second language). I am expressing myself clearly, choosing appropriate words, nailing the tones, and using correct grammar. I speak on for a couple of minutes, sharing my heart with a new acquaintance, probably answering a question she asked me. At a natural pause, that person looks at me in amazement and says, “You can speak Chinese really well!” After a brief thanks, I continue on with my story. Next the person interrupts me to say, “How did you learn Chinese? Did you learn it in America or in China?”
How am I feeling at that point? Am I flattered that this new friend is impressed by my Chinese?
No, actually not at all.
In fact, I’m irritated and saddened that she can’t see past my foreignness and my language to listen to what I’m saying. My meaning is far more important than the package – in this case the Mandarin that’s coming out of this blue eyed head (as shocking as that is). I can tell you that it’s a terribly frustrating and even demeaning feeling.
So there’s my main point — meaning is far more important than the package.
My analogy breaks down in lots of ways, but today as I was reading the The #8 Stumbling Block to Writing over at The WriteShop, this illustration hit me with real clarity.
When Sprite pours out her heart in a writing assignment and hands her draft over to me to look at, I have a choice. I can focus on the package — the spelling, the punctuation, the crazy handwriting — or the meaning. When I point out that she spelled TRYED wrong three times, she probably feels the same frustration I feel when that acquaintance can’t see past my blue eyes to my meaning.
This is exactly why I try my hardest to keep my mouth shut about all of the “cosmetic” issues with her writing and first talk about the meanings:
- Your details fit your main idea perfectly!
- I love how you told the funny story to illustrate your point.
- This second point needs more meat. It much weaker than the other two points.
- These words are perfect to express what you’re trying to say.
- These transition words make your thinking crystal clear.
- I don’t see how this detail fits your main idea.
- Why did you arrange the facts in this order?
I’m not talking about praise versus criticism. Did you notice that some of these responses were more negative than others? But I addressed her meaning, and that feels good to a child — to any writer, really — to be taken as a valid spokesman.
Later once the meat of the meaning has been sorted out, then we can move on to proofreading. That’s when I nit-pick about the spellings and missing commas. By that point, I’ve really tried to understand what Sprite is saying. And then we can focus on the grammar and mechanics.
So if my communication story makes you feel sympathy for me, transfer that feeling onto your young writer. Consider his or her frustration when you criticize his handwriting and sloppy margins instead of looking at the expression of his concepts. There is certainly a time for talking about capitalized letters and “change the y to i and add -ed.” But make sure you’re doing that at the right time in the writing process.
If you are working with your children on writing (aren’t we all?), then I do suggest you pop over to The WriteShop’s blog and read some of the series of 10 Stumbling Blocks to Writing. Maybe you’ll get some insights as I did.