Ending the Use of "Sloppy Copy"


I have long respected what K-12 teachers do. If anything, I meant to convey some of this respect in my recent post “The Blame Game.”

So I hope it is clear that have no desire to criticize elementary school teachers. But because my First Year students sometimes express reductive ideas about how writing should be done, I am concerned with how writing tasks are being represented at all levels of education. And there is one all-too-common way that writing is represented in the lower grades that is catchy and, well, cute. It is also misleading.

I’m talking about the designation “sloppy copy.”

In elementary school, this is what teachers (and then their students) have come to call the first, or rough draft.

It is sloppy. If we start unpacking this term, it seems to imply that, above all else, the final draft should be the opposite of sloppy. It should be neat.

In other words, the drafting process has to do with handwriting or surface mistakes, not thinking. And the final draft should be neat—with good handwriting, no mistakes.

But what about the thinking? Thinking can be sloppy. Thinking can be rude and crossed out and tangential. Thinking can be just starting out in a sloppy copy.

But thinking might not be what will improve "sloppy copy."

What I’m suggesting is this: The idea that writing is mainly an affair with getting rid of mistakes, with turning in clean copy that may or may not (probably does not) say anything, starts early, with the first lessons of grammar school.

And certainly, all finished writing should be neat, clean. But it should also say something, and if "sloppy copy" doesn't teach this, then we will need to turn to other lessons that do.

Learning the R word

The first lessons are perhaps most powerful. But they don’t have to be the only lessons that benefit us. In fact, the idea that just a few quick "lessons" in writing are all that is needed runs counter to a wealth of important research showing that writing improvement happens developmentally over many years and through much guided instruction. Learning to write is not like learning algebra. It is more like learning to swim or paint landscapes scenes.

My second grade teacher, for example, in 1963, handed a paper I’d written back to me, said it was good, but said I should “revise it.” Yes, she did not call it “sloppy copy,” as though she had to talk down to me. She referred to my writing with an adult word, one I'd heard my father, a news reporter, use: “revision.” I remember it to this day. I remember thinking that revision meant improvement, but I wasn't sure how.

My teacher did not follow up on this by modeling for me how I should revise, and I think today that she should have. But she was busy, with a full class of squirming, inattentive second graders. And at least she put the word in my writing vocabulary. Two years later, in 1965, my father reinforced it when he told me a a story I’d written was good, but I should revise it. I think these two got me started on a path I'm still following.

Hollywood Portrayals

This is to talk mainly about how learning to write is represented in the early grades. But there are more cultural influences around us as well. The movies, for example, seem to reinforce cultural stereotypes, though most of us don’t think when we go to the movies, and really, we are given little reason to do so. We probably never give any thought to the way writing and writers are represented to us by Hollywood. I never did until I started teaching and thinking about literacy.

One of my favorite Hollywood scenes comes from an old Frank Capra film. Barbara Stanwick, in Meet John Doe, after being let go from her job as a reporter, sits down at her typewriter and writes out a letter and scheme that sets the whole movie in motion—all in one sitting, without sloppy copy, of course, because, after all, she’s a good typist.

In an ‘80s movie, we see the Hollywood cliché of the writer in the opening scene with Billy Crystal, who plays a writer, sitting at his typewriter with a glass of wine (it may be sherry, I can’t be sure), and typing variations on “It was a dark and stormy night” over and over again, until, with the credits done, he has filled up a waste basket with paper wads and is lying on his typewriter quite drunk. Except for the obvious plagiarism--I've seen this line in the old Peanuts cartoons and in Madeline L'Engle's story A Wrinkle in Time--this scene has been shown in countless films about writers. The message of both the Stanwick scene and the Crystal scene is this:

Writers work top-down. They sit down, without planning, and write a perfect copy. There is no stage of invention, no planning, no second thoughts, no revisions. Just get it right the first time, and if it's neat, well, you're good to go.

The Other R Word

Representations are powerful and often subliminal. They give us a lot to think about, and we rarely realize that they have. With our busy schedules, we labor as romantics under the idea that our first thought is the best, or will have to be, or should be, because revision will not be true to the first thought, and not true to the way that geniuses work.

Sloppy copy doesn't contest this idea. It has nothing to do say about second thoughts—or third ones. And later, the implication seems to be, grown ups can skip it because real pros, played by Barbara Stanwick and Billy Crystal, are adults in possession of fine motor skills and therefore, apparently, neat.

Revision suggests something else, something to do with vision and getting closer in our attempts to our intentions.It also means work and the way all successful writers write.

As for sloppy copy, the pros may still be making it when they are looking at the proofs of their work about to be published. F. Scott Fitzgerald is supposed to have done this, messed up the galleys with significant changes to his novels.

My point here may not be that we should no longer teach "sloppy copy." But unless we are going to take this catchy, popular phrase and complicate it with our teaching, sloppy copy doesn't go far enough in representing to us what really happens in the process of composing.