Teaching someone to write is like teaching someone to draw. You can only do so much. The learning is in the doing. But criticism and encouragement can help, especially if you internalize the best of it. Three indelible comments remain the loudest editorial voices in my head.
“Pretty superficial stuff.” That came from Mr. Cushman when I was in 8th grade, his only comment at the end of my essay—brutal, but accurate. I developed a vigilant eye for the vapid, and for its evil twin, the overwrought.
But that kind of criticism can be stifling. By college my writing needed some Drano. Help arrived from my adviser, Barry O’Connell. In response to my one-paragraph analysis of a coal mining song, he wrote “Go on.” That’s all. So I produced a second paragraph. It came back with another “Go on.” We went back and forth like that until I had written five pages, the strongest section of my thesis.
Just a year ago it appeared the Drano had worked too well. On the margin of a crossed-out page, my editor Wendy Wolf wrote “enough already.” Indeed. With those words ringing in my ears, I proceeded to cut 150 pages. They will not be missed.
So that’s it—go on, dive below the surface, but know when it’s time to come up for air.
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