You send it fragments of your paper, maybe a provisional thesis or a few snippets of exegesis. Moments later it returns a fine-grained commentary: “I think you need to make this ‘art’ connection more clearly in your first paragraph if you’re going to follow it throughout the paper…. Are you maybe a little too black / white here?…. ”
It combines careful cross-examination of your argument with advice about structure. It copyedits your prose, flags awkward clauses, suggests the better word. It asks whether you’ve thought about a related passage and recommends books to help complicate your reading.
I had hoped I might find something of that sort at college. But of course professors don’t train writers the way coaches train athletes. Instead they do it obliquely, one paper, one small barrage of comments at a time.
The whole process is rather clumsy. In a typical semester-long university English class there might be three opportunities to showcase your writing, each one a standard one-to-three-thousand-word expository essay, each one born, for the most part, in a few miserable halfday blasts.
This is not the way to develop a complicated skill. It would be like trying to master the violin, say, by going blind to a recital, having an expert tell you all the ways you’ve failed, and letting that gestate for a few weeks before your next recital.
Whittier-Ferguson is a professor of English at the University of Michigan who has been teaching for thirty years. All along he’s wanted a way to work with students on their writing as they were writing — when they were most in need of, and most receptive to, targeted concrete feedback.
I’ve read that paper by K. Anders Ericsson, the paper that Malcolm Gladwell made famous in Outliers, that touts “the role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance.” Ericsson argues that to become an expert at something you have to log about 10,000 hours of practice, but not just any practice — a kind of practice that includes an “active search for methods to improve performance,” immediate informative feedback, structure, supervision from an expert, and “close attention to every detail of performance ‘each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit.'”
Well said! Teaching or training entrepreneurs is the same deliberate practice: best to do it as a process, not as a one shot event. Give instant feedback when it matters most, and practice again! By the way, deliberate practice is not only relevant to acquiring complicate skills but also to forming solid preferences. This is why parents are so important: they are always there to provide feedback to their kids.