Writers, editors, and school

The assumption of sole authorship underlies writing assessments in school, but in reality good writing almost always results from collaboration.

This post by American free-lance writer Dan Baum—

Writing as Contact Sport

—makes me wonder about how we teach writing in schools. Baum’s post is a response to criticism he received after revealing that his wife, Margaret Knox, is also his editor. But he got my attention with his remarks on the important role of editing:

Maybe some people write brilliantly entirely on their own. I don’t know any, though. And I’m certainly not one. Back in the day, people understood the importance of editors – Max Perkins, etc. Back then, editors edited. They engaged the copy. They made good writing better. That’s what Margaret does for me. (I’ve been thrice blessed. I’ve had great editing, in addition, at several magazines. And the editor of Nine Lives was an energetic genius who really improved the book.)

There’s no shame in relying on an editor. That’s how it’s always worked.

And yet in school, most of the time, a student whose work is edited by someone else is regarded as . . . a cheater!

I know: the teacher is the editor; there’s peer-editing; etc. But I’m not sure any of that adds up to an adequate defense. It appears that the need to assess is in direct conflict with the best practices of good writers.

Let’s look, for example, at the declaration that all IB students sign when submitting work for external assessment:

The assignment(s) I am submitting is (are) my own work. I have acknowledged each use of the words or ideas of another person, whether written or oral.

Is that a standard that professional writers collaborating with editors could meet? I doubt it. Now let’s look at a piece by Paul Graham, one of the best essayists I know. It’s called “Why Nerds are Unpopular”, and at the end of it we find this:

Thanks to Sarah Harlin, Trevor Blackwell, Robert Morris, Eric Raymond, and Jackie Weicker for reading drafts of this essay, and Maria Daniels for scanning photos. –PG

When we read Graham’s essay, we accept it as his work, and understand that he had help thinking it through and revising it. But if he were a student and handed in the same essay with the same notice of thanks appended, how many teachers would refuse to give him credit on the grounds that we can’t tell which bits are his, and his alone, and which bits came from Sarah, Trevor, Robert, Eric, and/or Jackie? A lot, I would think. And that disconnect between the way we teach and assess writing in school, on the one hand, and how real writers work, on the other, seems to me highly troubling.

5 thoughts on “Writers, editors, and school”

  1. Eric – I am quite intrigued by the item shown above, and I am writing to ask if you will allow me permission to share the article and your comments with my teaching colleagues. Thank you….Carolyn Hawkins, Cookeville HS, Cookeville, Tennessee (hawkinsc1@k12tn.net)

  2. So,MR. MscKnight, i wonder if this article reveal that everyone is a editor of someone else if the person just edited their original post?? Because even Paul Graham’s essay also has been edited by some of his friends?? then, in school,student whose work is edited by someone else is regarded as . . . a cheater! “Cheater”, in my opinion is harsh to the student since maybe the student just want to seek for further improvement in his/her essay by using the editor’s words?? after reading this article, i feel that i’m the cheater too in the school as i’m always asking friends advices for my works…

  3. [From Celine G.]
    Mr. Macknight, I agree with your claim that “good writing almost always results from collaboration”. Humans have existed on planet Earth since at least a hundred thousand years ago. Obviously any idea put forth by any person in any piece of writing has been proposed and mentioned before. Furthermore, that said idea may simply be a development or improvement on previous inspirations garnered from other writers; hence, how can any writer be sure that his/her “original” ideas are really original, and not just some manifestation of the human subconsciousness? So really, a piece of writing will be great if it contains contributions from people with different perspectives – it should not be considered as cheating.

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