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Editors and Teachers

Posted on Monday, January 30, 2012 at 7:35 PM

Praise is a potent force.

By Peter P. Jacobi

This is about editing and teaching.

This is about Roger Rosenblatt, Romeo and Juliet, a Liberian mask-carver, Franz Liszt, and a pianist named Andor Foldes.

As teacher of writing courses for journalism students, I am, of course, an editor. Recently, as teacher/editor, I had just returned a set of features with multitudinous scrawls in red plastered over copy. And I had reminded the class about problems that seemed to pervade: failure to carefully consider for whom the story was written, with the result that the approach used to get into the subject seemed faulty; leads that fell short on enticement or that didn't get the story properly underway; lack of a thesis telling potential readers what the forthcoming story was about; flawed structure or no clearly evident sense of direction; the absence of detail, making points far less persuasive or comprehensible than they might have been; poor transitions; verbal and/or informational choppiness; deficient flow of copy resulting from the writer not having read the copy aloud; opinions where there should have been none, and so forth.

Subtle, Graceful Instruction

I had also just read Roger Rosenblatt's just-published re-creation of a writing class, the remembrance in narrative form of a semester spent with a dozen students at Stony Brook University, where he is a distinguished professor of English and writing. Rosenblatt's book is titled Unless It Moves the Human Heart, The Craft and Art of Writing (ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins).

This is a relaxed little volume, comfortably, almost subtly, instructive. One will find in its pages, amidst accounts of class conversations, wisdoms like this: "I believe in spare writing. Precise and restrained writing. I like short sentences. Fragmented sentences, sometimes. I enjoy dropping in exotic words from time to time. Either they put off readers or drive them to the dictionary. I do it anyway. "

And wisdoms like this: "Most of my students suffer bouts of throat clearing -- overwriting and hesitating at the beginning of a piece, instead of plunging in. The mistake derives from their not knowing what they mean to say."

I enjoyed the book. You may, too.

Which leads me to say: I may not always offer my own students such advice so gracefully or gently as Professor Rosenblatt, but I do offer it. Just as, I'm sure, you do to those who work with you in creating your publications.

Constructive Criticism

At the same time I returned that set of student papers, I received more, these being reviews of a local production of Shakespeare's glorious tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. The assignment, as part of a class in "Reporting the Arts," was to write the review on a two-and-a-half hour deadline. I had at that point not yet read the results carefully but merely glanced at what the students produced under pressure. I noticed the usual flaws. I noticed evidence of rush. I noticed some good ideas and good ideas well phrased.

I also noticed some diatribes voiced against a production that, I admit, had a number of weaknesses but also a here-and-there strength. To give you just one example: "On Sunday night's closing performance of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, the death of the star-crossed lovers could not have come sooner. Never before had I seen the Bard's most noted tragedy bawdier, more bombastic or miscast than the ... Company's rendition." And that was only the start of an expressed opinion which included words like hopeless, disagreeable, and obnoxious.

I told the students that I had skimmed their reviews and, as result, wanted to share with them a quote, that of a Liberian mask-carver expressing an emotion felt on observing his own handiwork: "It is not possible to see anything more wonderful in this world," noted the mask-carver. "His face is shining. He looks this way and that, and all the people wonder about this beautiful and terrible thing. To me, it is like what I see when I am dreaming. I say to myself, this is what my neme [spirit] has brought to mind. I have made this. How can a man make such a thing? It is a fearful thing that I can do. No other man can do it unless he has the right knowledge. No woman can do it. I feel that I have borne children."

Then I paused and said, "Why would I have read that quote to you?"

There was silence, for quite a spell. "Why, I ask you?"

There was more silence and, finally, a raised hand. One student ventured, "Maybe we were too negative, too strongly opinionated? Maybe we forgot the hard work that went into the show, even though some of us didn't like the results?"

"Indeed," I responded. "And thank you. There are opinions and there are opinions. There is negativity and there is negativity. There are ways of saying things and there are ways of saying things. It's not just what you write but how. You must be honest when you share an opinion. You must say what you feel needs to be said. But keep in mind that motivated and hard-working folks are at the other end of your published views. To teach them what you know, do you need to rip and tear?"

Silently, all the while, I reminded myself that as teacher (and as editor), I need to be honest and frank and clear in my reactions to the work of my students, but also I must remember they have feelings and they're still learning and they (most of them most of the time, at least) are doing their best, flawed thought their work might be.

So, I need to avoid diatribes from me to them. And I suggest to you, as editor/teacher, that the overly sharp, the reproachful rather than helpful reaction to what a colleague of yours produces may result in less improvement, less of a solution to the problem, than a clearly stated yet measured edit, with instructive comments added.

Praise Is Potent

And that's where Franz Liszt comes in. In covering my classical music beat for the local paper, I've been listening to more of Liszt's music of late in concert and on CDs; this is the 200th anniversary year of his birth. That and the above-discussed events reminded me of a brief item that ran in the Reader's Digest some years ago, written by the pianist Andor Foldes, who has since passed away. He wrote of a master class he had given for young pianists in Germany. One student, he said he felt, "would do even better if given a pat on the back. I praised him before the whole class for what distinguished his playing. He immediately outdid himself, to his amazement and that of the group."

Foldes recalled a crisis moment in his life when, at 16, he had differences with his music teacher. By chance, he had the opportunity to play for Emil von Sauer, at that time Liszt's last surviving pupil. Sauer listened to the boy play Bach's "Toccata in C Major" and asked for more. Andor Foldes played Beethoven's "Pathétique" Sonata and, then, Schumann's "Papillons."

"Finally," wrote Foldes, then in his seventies, "von Sauer rose and kissed me on the forehead. 'My son,' he said, 'when I was your age, I became a student of Liszt. He kissed me on the forehead after my first lesson, saying, 'Take good care of this kiss -- it comes from Beethoven, who gave it to me after hearing me play.' I have waited for years to pass on this sacred heritage, but now I feel you deserve it."

Concluded Foldes: "Nothing in my life has meant as much to me as von Sauer's praise. Beethoven's kiss miraculously lifted me out of my crisis and helped me become the pianist I am today. Soon I, in turn, will pass it on to the one who most deserves it. Praise is a potent force, a candle in a dark room."

We need to remember: along with the slaps on the wrist, a once-in-a-while kiss can go a long way.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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