If You Know You’ll Make a Mistake In Advance, Is It Still a ‘Mistake’?

March 27, 2023


Often, a couple days before my students turn in a piece of writing, I have them reflect on the process and product at that point. The reflection typically concludes with two questions:

What are you going to not do that you will wish you’d done?

What question are you going to wish you’d asked me?

While there’s always a couple people stumped at the idea of saying in advance what mistakes they’re going to make, the overwhelming majority are always pretty clear. They’re, in a sense, comfortable with the mistakes they’re going to make, and don’t plan to avoid them. Which sounds like a really nice, zen-like state to be in… but is probably something less enlightened than that.

And then time and space disappeared, and he realized that all writing is both proofread and not proofread…

The question they won’t ask is often something mechanical, like evidence citation. Or what order they should put the name and date and whatever in the corner. (my standard answer: I literally couldn’t care less. If we’ve reached a point where the thing that needs attention is the formatting of the info in the corner, we’re done. Writing: accomplished)

But the “thing they’ll wish they’d done” is usually something on the level of outlining or proofreading. They are confident – in advance – that they won’t proofread.

And some of it is pragmatics-based. They’re confident they’ll be typing the last few words in the moments leading up to the submission deadline.

But what’s always interesting to me is what emerges if you open up a little group therapy session.

“Hi, I’m Dave, and my essays are usually one, giant paragraph.”

So, based on their own admissions, why don’t students want to proofread their own work?

One: a big one comes back to one of my stand-by platitudes – The problem with students is they learn too well. Students don’t proofread their writing because they don’t have to. The System has taught them that mediocrity in writing will typically earn high marks. It exists, it’s adequate, it’s largely coherent. Instructors are so pleased that something has been turned in, so wary to mark something low. And besides, it’s right in line with the rest of the works, so it can feel like that really is the most they’re capable of.

Two: Denial. They don’t want to know how bad it is. Especially the intro and conclusion, which they cranked out very quickly, not entirely sure what’s supposed to be in it, and – from writing standardized essays on standardized tests – they’ve learned through experience that the conclusion, in particular, is meaningless (See: Reason #1). The intro and conclusion are more abstract in construction and purpose than the trusty body paragraph of a 5-paragraph essay (just typing that makes me think of flavorless porridge), so they avoid looking at it. I’m not judging – I’ve avoided looking at a credit card bill or two in my life. 

But this is where making revision and reiteration so important. Not just cleaning it up, but actually reconceptualizing and rewriting later on. If writing is rewriting, then that has to become a natural – and unavoidable – part of the teaching and learning process. 

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About The Byronic Man

Recently voted "The Best Humor Site in America That I, Personally, Write," The Byronic Man is sometimes fiction, but sometimes autobiography. And sometimes cultural criticism. Oh, and occasionally reviews. Okay, it's all those different things, but always humorous. Except on the occasions that it's not. Ah, geez. Look, it's a lot of things, okay? You might like it, is the point.

View all posts by The Byronic Man


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