I’ve been a language learning consultant (“coach,” etc.) for about 25 years, helping people learn second (or third…) languages. Recently I was thinking about many of the principles of learning a new language and how they apply to writing.
Writing is like language learning in many ways. And not just because they both involve words… language. I’m thinking more of the process involved, particularly as it relates to errors.
First, I’ll look at language learning, then I will relate that to the craft of writing.
Adult language learners want to avoid errors. So we want to practice, drill, memorize and form sentences in our minds before we speak. All to avoid the dreaded “mistake.” We all seem to think that any language coming out of our mouth is always supposed to be perfect, that’s it’s only a matter of volume–how much we can say.
That’s a false view of language learning. We will always make mistakes. Trying to ensure that we only speak perfectly formed sentences is one sure way to freeze up, to paralyze our minds and to be unable to say anything at all! So we might as well get used to the idea of mistakes and get about the business of talking and communicating (which, surprisingly enough, is one way to learn and improve.)
Another wrong view we tend to have about errors is to let them discourage us about our progress. As soon as we realize that we have uttered something imperfect, we beat ourselves up over it and feel that we are failing to make progress.
But the truth is, errors (i.e. errors which we are aware of) are actually our friends. They are indicators of progress, rather than merely demonstrations of failure. This is a difficult concept for most learners to grasp.
To explain how this is true, let me suggest that our proficiency in language can be described by three stages: mastered, growing and oblivious.
Mastered refers to language (vocabulary or grammar) over which we have full control. We no longer make mistakes in these areas. We are also unaware of our perfection–we simply speak naturally.
Growing is the language we are learning now. We make mistakes. Sometimes we catch ourselves just as we say something wrong and we correct it before continuing on. This language is only a half step away from moving into the mastered category. But sometimes we catch ourselves later, say on the way home from the store, and think, “Yikes! I said that wrong!” Next time we’ll probably catch it sooner.
Now the oblivious category is the language areas where we make mistakes that we are completely unconscious of. We are, in fact, oblivious to them. We blissfully make these errors because they deal with language competencies which are too advanced for us. We just aren’t there yet.
The problem comes when we let all those areas we are aware of in the growing category get us down. The only reason we are aware of those “mistakes” is because we are no longer oblivious to them (this is progress!) and because we have almost mastered them (more progress!)
The irony is that once we have mastered something, we are no longer aware of it. We don’t give ourselves any credit for what we do well. We focus instead on the error du jour, never stopping to think that we were making that very same error last week, but were oblivious to it.
So what is happening is that we constantly get discouraged by our errors, never realizing that we are not making the same errors that we made last month, last week. We are making new errors, we produce higher level errors day by day!
So how is this like the craft of writing?
There is one difference. In speech, the words come out of our mouth and that’s it. We are heard and have little or no chance for revision. Or if we do correct ourselves, everyone already knows of our error. With writing, thankfully, we can revise before we publish.
However, we can still learn two things from the description of language learning above. First of all, JUST WRITE! We shouldn’t worry about errors and get all tense and try to perfect each phrase before writing anything.
Instead, we should write freely, as best as we can. This is called the First Draft.
Secondly, I propose that our skill in the craft of writing falls into the same three categories mentioned here.
The first draft will reflect what we have mastered. For a novice writer, this will not be anything like what a great novelist could produce.
Going back over the first draft, a writer will become aware of everything they realize must be revised. These errors (or chances for improvement) fall under the growing category. With practice, as a writer grows in the craft, more and more of these will shift to the mastered category, the first draft will be better to start with, and the writer’s revision process will focus on higher level issues.
The better the writer, the more that will fall under the mastered category and the more the writer will catch on their own. But there is always that pesky oblivious category. This is why we have professional editors and readers.
So, just as with language learning, we should not necessarily be discouraged by our errors. If we’re aware of them, we can fix them! But for those blind spots, those errors to which we are still oblivious, we need help and should welcome help and input. We should be glad that we have skilled people who can work with us to perfect what we have written.
Next time, from my perspective as a translator, I will consider how writing is like the process of translation.
See you then…