The Perfect Trap

Many years ago when I was teaching high school English in rural upstate South Carolina, I taught all three of the district’s superintendent’s children—two daughters and a son.

The older daughter in many ways represented both a uniquely smart and hard-working student and the paradox of the perfect student.

These were the early days of me learning how to teach writing well; these were the early days when I taught with a sort of earnest zeal that can never make up for the horrific blunders I imposed on several years of students.

Setting aside everything I did wrong—reminding us all that learning to write and learning how to teach writing are journeys—I was from the earliest days as a teacher firmly committed to students experiencing writer’s workshop and writing often, authentically, and with multiple drafts for each essay.

Most of my students then and even now have had very little experience with drafting, navigating substantive and challenging feedback, and teaching/learning experiences that sit outside the norm of grading and evaluation.

This older daughter was the top student in her class; she went on to excel in college and eventually eared a doctorate.

But she wasn’t the perfect student because she was fortunate to be so smart and having been raised in a very privileged home.

From the beginning, she simply revised her essays and resubmitted them time and again. While other students tried to avoid the revision process or simply submitted a weak effort at the one required revision in order to pass my class, she was all-in on our partnership to help her learn to write well.

In stark contrast to that experience many years ago, I routinely—and once again this semester—have to carefully navigate that many if not most of my students are paralyzed by their own misguided perfectionism; paradoxically, the perfect student is not bound by perfection, but by risk and trust in learning as a journey.

A new partner for me in my quest to move students learning to write away from perfectionism and grade-grabbing is John Warner’s The Writer’s Practice.

My first-year writing students just finished Warner’s book, and we recently brainstormed the big take aways they gained from the book. I was deeply encouraged that many students were quick to focus on a theme of Warner’s:

This book is here to give shape to your practice, and encourage you to work purposefully toward increased proficiency.

While you will quite quickly amass experience, it’s important to recognize that there is no terminal expertise in writing. You will get a little better every time you do it, but you will never reach a finish line after which you will cease to improve.

This is one of the best things about writing with purpose and writing through different experiences.

May as well keep going by next figuring out who you are as a writer….

The first thing to know about writing is, in the words of Jeff O’Neal, a longtime writing teacher and now digital media entrepreneur, “You are going to spend your whole life learning how to write, and then you are going to die.” (pp. 9, 16)

I abandoned putting grades on essays decades ago in order to shift students away from thinking in terms of evaluation and avoiding mistakes in order to be perfect; however, the lack of grades has proven to inhibit student performance as well.

While I still do not grade essays, I invite students at any time to conference with me about what grade their work would be assigned. Several students have had this conversation with me this fall, sharing a common theme: They feel that my feedback suggests they are writing poorly and that they are doomed to low grades.

First, I assured each of them that their current hypothetical grade status is quite good, but more importantly, I stressed that if they continue to revise with purpose and care they certainly were capable of achieving an A in the course. In fact, I tell them, I often anticipate that from students who fully engage in the process.

They all left our conference relieved, but I have to stress to students over and over what Warner emphasizes above: “[Y]ou will never reach a finish line after which you will cease to improve.”

At the core of the perfect trap are some fundamental problems with traditional teaching that are firming linked to grades and evaluation.

The punishment/reward paradigm discourages risk and encourages pale compliance; writing well comes from risk and requires that writers navigate boundaries, both conforming to and breaking them.

There is nothing perfect about the perfect student, and there never will be.

As teachers of writing, we are tasked with fostering in our students a sense of purpose, care, and trust that the educational system has denied them.

While my two FYW seminars discussed Warner, several mentioned the O’Neal quote, which seems a bit harsh, but writing and learning to write, as journeys with no finish lines, are bound only by time.

We must write and rewrite until there is no more time for that piece, and then we move on.

Perfect is a trap that ends that journey, or even worse, never allows the first step.