Monday, 8 February 2010

Over Steering and Fine Tuning

When I first learned to drive I was all over the place. I zig-zagged down roads, hefting the steering wheel this way and that - oh no, about to hit that parked car, quick, heave the wheel to the right, oh no, I'm going onto the other side of the road, there's a car coming, quick, back again, oh no, parked car, etc etc. But I practiced, and improved, and learnt how the car responded and it wasn't that long before I could maintain a straight line without over-steering.

It's always disconcerting when you make a comment on student work and they respond with an aggrieved cry, 'But you told me to do it like that.' My first reaction is always that I must have been taken over by aliens who have whiled away the hours of boredom that is being me by handing out some truly dreadful advice. Normal service resumes a few seconds later and I abandon visions of the mother ship and ask exactly what my advice had been. Invariably my pearl of wisdom has either been misunderstood and translated into a gnarly old nugget of dung, or the student has taken it on board so enthusiastically that they've applied it to everything regardless of the circumstances being appropriate.*

For example, I was commenting on a piece of work that featured all the characters being relentlessly nice to each other. The sun shone, the birds tweeted, and everybody was helpful, sweetly sharing and caring for each other. This may be an accurate reflection of real life, but I felt it could make for bland reading and suggested adding a little conflict between the characters - nothing major, just the occasional hesitation before offering to lend out their favourite pair of shoes so Cinderella could go to a party.

I hope the writer understood the comment because after class another student asked me why I'd thought the piece bland - she was confused as the setting had seemed dramatic and anything but bland to her. She'd over steered and applied the comment to the whole piece. It was never, ever my intention to comment that the whole piece - the writing style, the situation, the location, the characters, whatever - was bland, just that one aspect could do with a little fine tuning to spark it up a bit.

It happens in class too. Someone makes a specific comment on a specific paragraph and the writer rushes to apply it to the whole piece. I'm not sure why - eagerness to improve, the desire to please, lack of confidence? It's one of the skills we learn through experiencing feedback, the ability to make the minor adjustments that maintain a straight story line.

*Or maybe I should just stick with the abducted by aliens bit.


Anonymous said...

The most useful comment I've had whilst writing my Russian Gloom book was that the characters were all too nice to each other...and a'bland'..Yes, it was me! I've written out my chapter synopsis and in red under each chapter noted what I need to do to make them less spineless. Actually it's made me think of several minor tensions which will twist the story, I think, more convincingly along its tortuous tracks. SO, YOU WERE RIGHT and I didn't take offence..if it was me, that is. Jacky And maybe it wasn't.

Sarah Duncan said...

I am found out - I was thinking of your piece. Which isn't bland. Nor gloomy either (well, not yet...). Glad the feedback is working for you!