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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Seeing Your Work Reflected Back at You

I didn't realize how powerful this could be until I experienced it for myself.

December 18, 2018

Something fun has been happening since the official release of my book, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities[1]: people have been tweeting passages from the book back to me.

The highlight of these was just the other day when a correspondent tweeted a picture of a quote he’d extracted from the book and placed on his desk as a reminder.[2]

As far as I know, this is a career milestone. I don’t think I’ve ever been desk inspiration before.

I think there’s a number of reasons why these moments feel so good to me. These are the emotional responses I experience, pretty much in order:

1. Someone read my book!

In my previous experiences, the actual publication of a book is something of an anti-climax, so seeing concrete evidence that the book is being read is both exciting and different.

2. I sound like I know what I’m talking about!

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in my message, but when immersed in a project for so long, it’s easy to lose perspective on the specifics of what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. Seeing what other people extract is a way for me to get a fresh look at what I've done through another's eyes.

3. I want to talk to that person!

Who is this person who has seen fit to quote me on the Internet? What do they do? What do they know? What do they like about my book?

Stepping slightly outside these emotions, I can see why they’re happening. Collectively, they imbue both a message of validation and an invitation to community. Writing can be an isolating activity – literally in my case, as I spend the vast majority of my day alone in my spare bedroom office – so having that work recognized while being introduced to someone else who shares the same concerns is a real boost.

It’s good for the ego, but it’s more than that, and besides what’s wrong with a small boost the ego, anyway?

This experience has me reflecting on a practice I’ve tried to employ in providing feedback on student writing, quoting the most interesting part of piece back to the student in a summary comment at the end.

For a long time, the practice was haphazard, something I would do when particularly struck by an idea or specific language. The reason for this was because I was primarily focused on justifying my grade and the quoting was something I did when offering the praise part of my summative grading process.

As my view of grades and grading changed, and I became much more formative in my approach, I started quoting more often because for every writer I wanted to give them a sense of when they were at their best. With my creative writing courses, I required students to quote their favorite passage from each other’s stories on every single peer response.

The quoting had a salutary effect on my feedback because it put me immediately in a place where I was responding to the student’s ideas, rather than judging them for “correctness.” It was even more interesting when I could push back on the student’s ideas and I would realize we’re having an honest-to-god conversation, an exchange of ideas.

I’m glad this has been my practice, but I’m not sure I fully understood the impact of it until I started getting these little social media missives about my book.

We underestimate the emotional impact of how we grade our students and how little it costs to give them something that may carry them a bit further in their work. This is particularly true in writing. Who is to say the stakes that I perceive on my book are so different from what a student experiences with an essay?

In a lot of ways, it opens up space for more rigor, and incentivizes students to take risks which may result in learning more. Every time someone reaches out to me to say they’re reading my book, I start thinking about how I need to write another one. 

A better one.


Since this will be the last post of the year, I intended to write a reflection about the year that was, but when I sat down to work, this came out instead.

It’s a small-r, rather than big-R reflection, I suppose. The thought of putting some kind of big bow about what’s happened to me in this space this year seems like an impossible task. I’m having a hard time clearly seeing where I’ve been, or where I’m going next.

As the year ends, many futures seem possible.[3]Not a bad place to be.

I’ll see you all in 2019, same bat time, same bat place.


[1]Order during the holidays direct from Johns Hopkins University Press and use the code HHOL for 40% off. That code is good on all their books, by the way.

[2]The quote: “But what if learning really is a process that happens inside each individual a little differently? What if students need sufficient freedom in order to find a path that works for them?”

[3]I’ll have another book coming out in February that may have additional impact on my future trajectory.



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