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Writing Coach: Revise This

by Julie Walton Shaver

September 19, 2005

”I don’t pretend,” I said to the classroom of 7th graders, “I’ll be as tough on you as I would on a piece I was editing for The Times.” Many of them stared at me, some of them frowning at the challenging days to come, some visibly shaking in their seats. Some were staring out the window. One was digging through his bookbag.

As a writing coach, a volunteer gig I first signed up for three years ago, my goal is for this new bunch of students to learn that no piece of writing is ever finished, that rewriting is essential to the process. This is a concept young people are usually reluctant to grasp, but in my limited experience, I’ve found that feedback from an impartial outsider like myself, not a parent, not a teacher, makes students feel as though their writing is worth the trouble.

And it is.

I read one paper today written by a young man who told me at the outset with dejected shoulders, “ I really didn’t intend this paper to be entertaining. I just wrote it for myself.” As I read, I was quickly captivated by the opening paragraphs of his autobiographical essay, a chess tournament exposition. Still, he sat in the opposing desk, eyeing me suspiciously in the back of the classroom, alternately staring at a paperclip on the floor, and making verbal excuses.” I just wrote it so I could remember the tournament,” he said. “I didn’t know anybody but my teacher would read it. I know it’s boring.”

“Aha!’ I said, “but that’s where you’re wrong. First of all, everything you write should be entertaining to somebody. And even if you’re only writing for yourself, you don’t want to be bored or embarrassed when you’re reading back over your middle school essays someday in the distant future, do you?”

He shook his head.

”And anyway,” I said. “Shhhhh! I gotta find out how this tournament turns out!”

By the end of our session together, he was red-lining the jargon, nodding, making direct eye contact with me, circling the paragraphs we thought were especially good, crossing out whole sentences, and making notes on important and interesting details he could add that would make his essay, which was already quite good, an excellent one.

When he stood to return to his regular desk, he snapped his shoulders to attention and reached out to shake my hand, a change of mood so abrupt, it caught me by surprise. “Thank you,” he said, smiling.

That smile has brightened my entire day.

Now if you’ll excuse me, this little essay about being a 7th-grade writing coach needs some reworking . . .

from City of Nouns, by Julie Walton Shaver
Copyright © 2005 Julie Walton Shaver. Used by permission.

Julie Walton Shaver is night manager of news graphics at the New York Times and a full-time photographer specializing in documenting family lifestyles, in addition to being a mom and a writer. She is the author of City of Nouns: Quotes and Thoughts From the Nightside, self-published in 2007. This 600-page book is filled with stories and photographs from 1996-2006, often focusing on direct quotes that tell the tales of her sons’ early years. “Writing Coach: Revise This,” was written during her stint as a coach in the Edgar Middle School Writers Room.