My son’s fourth-grade homework may challenge me more as a parent than it does him as a student. I know the material well enough, but I frequently find myself stuck between getting him to the right answers and getting him to the right concepts. In the context of math homework, this frequently means sending him back to reread instructions or to the glossary to get a clearer definition of a term. Math, short of calculus at any rate, provides very little gray area between right and wrong answers. Written work knows no such boundaries, and my unwillingness to overlook even the tiniest grammatical inconsistencies is both an occupational hazard for me and, I suspect, a source of anxiety for him.
Nobody would suggest a fourth-grade writer ought to pass his work by a professional editor before handing it in. The editorial process discourages professionals from time to time, so making it constructive for a nine-year-old is a challenge. I know our aim is well short of publication-quality writing, but that leaves a wide-open territory in which to draw the line. Editing with a light touch in order to preserve the writer’s voice is nothing new, but with kids this age, finding any kind of coherent voice is part of the project. Lead them too much and you end up imprinting your own voice over theirs or, worse, taking over their project. Still, I can’t very well let him wander aimlessly.
One of my college writing professors advised us to write both profligately and carefully. You write with the understanding that once you get to the revision stage you will toss out the majority of your work. If you do otherwise, your revision process is broken. At the same time, though, every word you commit to paper should be written as you’d like to see it set out in a future literary anthology collecting the great writers of your time. Write with purpose and clarity, in other words, but don’t get so hung up about the details that you fail to write. Or, perhaps better, chase perfection at all times, even while realizing you won’t achieve it.
The other day when I sent my son back to revise a word problem he had written as part of a math assignment, he suggested I was “asking for perfection.” I explained that, while I didn’t expect his work to be perfect at all times, I did expect that he would at least aim in that direction. A word problem may be math, but it still has to articulate its problem clearly, with proper sentence construction.
As a hedge against being too picky, I enlist my wife to join the editorial team on our son’s writing projects (again with the overkill, but again: occupational hazard). We work with him to revise his work, and to manage his expectations so that once he’s fixed one round of issues the appearance of the next round doesn’t come as a surprise. And there is always a next round, because any written work could be a little better, whether written by an elementary school student or a working novelist. This lesson—that work can be good enough to hand in without being the best one can produce—sinks in slowly, if ever. I believe it also makes a lot of people dislike writing. I could say that fourth graders are just learning nuance, but in reality I think most adults only cope with it in small doses. Binaries—finished or unfinished, right or wrong, good or bad, inbox or outbox—are much easier to handle. We’d rather finish the project and move on than let it stew endlessly. Writers tend to do the latter compulsively.
In the end, I try to use what I call the Crossword Puzzle Rule: a good puzzle challenges you and stretches your mind in ways that make you feel intelligent, rather than stumping you in ways that make you feel stupid. I stow my red pens and copyeditor marks, and the two (or three) of us sit down together and look at things sentence by sentence. We focus on the inner kernel of what my son wants to say, and help him look for the clearest, easiest way to say it. I try to attack grammar via general rules, focusing on the biggest issues first (verb tense agreement, for example). I try to give him open-ended choices to keep his voice engaged and to keep myself from taking charge of sentence rewriting the way I would on a professional project.
It’s hard work for all of us, though for now I’m pretty sure my son only sees it as a set of Sisyphean tasks set for him. I remember rolling that boulder back to my desk every weekend as a kid, struggling through an essay without quite knowing how close a final draft might be. The process hasn’t changed, but somewhere along the line I grew to love it. That’s the difficult balance point here, the thing his teachers, my wife, and I want to teach that lies underneath the mechanics of drafts and language. There’s no way to make writing less like work, but the work itself can be enjoyable. As an old hiking friend used to say, if you love the summit you’ll be happy for twenty minutes to an hour, but if you love the climb and the descent, too, you’ll be happy all day.