It’s that time of year again. The shops are full, the fairy lights are going up, and my students are handing in their submissions before going home for the holidays. For the next couple of weeks writing may be low on the list of priorities, but when we come back in January, thoughts often turn to one thing. The grade.
But here’s the thing. The grade awarded to a piece of creative work (any piece of work in fact) is just the side-show. The main event is the tutor’s response to the writing, the comments and notes on the page, the highlighting of what has been done well and suggestions on how to improve. The problem is that the main event is a spit-and-sawdust affair, rather drab, sometimes slow and confusing, whereas the side-show promises sparkle and the flurry of glitter.
The honest truth is there is nothing to be learned from the glitter of the grade. A student that just looks at the number they’ve achieved and moves straight onto the next piece of writing, the next assignment, is unlikely to improve. They might get lucky, they might hit upon a winning formula once, or even two or three times, but this is unsustainable if they don’t understand which aspects are working in a piece of writing, and which aspects are not.
I know this because I had a dilemma when I came to submit on the MA at BSU. By the end of the year I had a first draft of my novel, but I only needed to submit about 40,000 words. The choice was simply this. Should I work on the 40,000 words only, trying to achieve the first I needed if I was going to get into teaching? Or should I work on the whole, knowing that progress would be slower and therefore less polished? The novel was at that delicate stage where the structure, emerging themes, plot and character development were still young and fresh, when the broad eye was essential to see the bigger picture of the aspects that were working as well as the flaws.
My final decision was dictated by my passion for the story. I wanted my work (not my grade) to be the best it could possibly be, so somehow I managed to ignore the glitter of the grade, and committed myself to the main event instead.
Students may be tempted to think that this dilemma is only applicable to study, that once they graduate they will no longer be tied to achieving grades. But then they will be faced with that other glittery prize that is ready to dazzle and distract, the prize of publication. I spent many years rushing my writing, always working towards publication, until I realised my work was deteriorating and had become shallow and lifeless. I’d stopped believing in it because publication was more important than my story. Once I realised this I slowed right down, let that elusive prize fade into the distance, and suddenly my work came back into focus.
Throughout your writing life these prizes will throw themselves in front of you, shiny and new and demanding attention. Their glitter will try to draw you in, promising glory and accolades and a seat at the top table. But don’t be fooled. The main event may be slow and difficult, but it will make you a better writer and nothing is more important than your story or your poem or your script. So show up, stay for the duration, and only brush the sawdust from your boots when you (and your writing) are truly good and ready.