How to Make Your Students’ Writing Matter—to Them and to You
By Chrissine Rios, MA, Kaplan University Writing Center
Academic writing doesn’t come naturally to most new college students.
Writing formally can be like wearing stiff new shoes to a special occasion: uncomfortable if not also painful; the shoes demand more attention than the purpose of the occasion, and once it’s over, the shoes go back in the box. Not only do the expectations of academic style feel rigid, they can also seem prescriptive with the standards, rules, and criteria for grading. It’s no wonder that when students revise, they only concern themselves with presentation—making superficial corrections in spelling, mechanics, and usage. Students cling to the assignment rubric to determine the paper’s completeness and submit it to the Writing Center hoping the tutor who reads it finds nothing wrong.
Writing Center tutors are skilled academic readers, accustomed to providing revision suggestions on first drafts, and some make a good first impression—APA formatted title page, clear intro and thesis, no intrusive grammar errors, yet after reading to the end, the tutor goes to respond and has to scroll back to the title page and introduction to remember what the paper was about. The student never took her new shoes out of the box or did more than try them on, and so begins the work of the writing tutor: help the student re-see her draft, so she rewrites it with more audience awareness, focus on the dominant idea, structure, information, and voice. No simple task for either the tutor or the student.
“Most beginning writers refuse to rewrite,” explains acclaimed journalist and writing teacher, Donald Murray (2013). “Writing is always an act of self-exposure,” says Murray; “When we finish a draft, all writers feel vulnerable,” and since students are also writing to have their knowledge tested, “Any suggestion for a change in a draft is a personal insult” (p. 2). An Aha! moment can quickly turn to dread: “Now I’m going to have to rewrite my whole paper!” said my student while I was helping her paraphrase. She sounded defeated, and kind of angry with me. But this, again, is part of the my work as an academic writing tutor, helping students write beyond the assignment, to let go of correctness, and understand what Murray (2013) calls “the secret of our craft. Writing is rewriting” (p. 2).
When students are writing in the disciplines, and the writing process isn’t built into the curriculum as it is in a composition course, instructors can and should enlighten students in the art of revision and allow time for it.
Revising is not the end of the writing process but the beginning (Murray, 2013)—it’s when writers re-see the entire draft and make decisions about focus, audience, form, structure, and language—the concerns that help writers discover what they didn’t know they knew and communicate it to the reader in a way that makes sense and matters. A revision worksheet or checklist can help. If you provide one to your students, does it include some or all of the following?
Assignment (The writing prompt, expectations, and guidelines): Does the writing fully address the requirements of the assignment?
Purpose (To inform, persuade, instruct, report, critique, compare/contrast, inspire, reflect . . .): Is the purpose of the writing clear and consistent throughout the writing?
Focus (Similar to photography—where the emphasis is, the dominant idea, clarity): Is the focus of the writing clear? Is it on one main idea?
Structure (The order of ideas, organization): Will the sequence of ideas make sense to a reader? Would any ideas raise questions that go unaddressed? (Why? Who cares? Who says? How so? What do you mean?)
Development (How the structural skeleton is fleshed out with information—content, context, research, specific details, illustrations, facts, examples, evidence, explanations): Are the ideas in the writing developed with enough information to sound authoritative, relevant, convincing, and clear?
Voice (The words, collocations, and patterns of language that project the persona and style of the writer and the formality or informality of the writing occasion): When reading the draft aloud, I sound _______________ (matter-of-fact, persuasive, light-hearted, folksy, logical and measured, sarcastic, impassioned, preachy, humorous, confident, unsure, surprised, honest, like me!). Is my voice appropriate for the subject matter and my purpose? Will it appeal to an academic audience?
Language (The use of rhetorical and literary devices: alliteration, anecdote, metaphor, analogy, assertion, authority, allusion, figurative language . . .): Are the rhetorical strategies and/or literary devices in the writing effective? Do they serve the purpose of the writing? Advance the argument? Clarify the focus? Ground ideas in logic? Reveal your integrity as a writer and researcher? Engage the reader?
That last one, language, could be part of “development” or “voice” too, and you may have your own way of defining other or all of the above ideas. Terrific! Your students would love to hear them. If you don’t yet provide a revision guide to your students writing academic papers, I invite you to develop one from my list and adapt it accordingly. It may make all the difference in helping make your students’ writing matter more, to them and to you!
Murray, D. M. (2013). The craft of revision, fifth anniversary edition. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
Thanks for these very important and inspired words. Students are thinking about and wrestling with so much as they process new knowledge as well as new language and writing requirements. Thinking about writing and learning in this way helps us guide students and not simply penalize them for what may appear to be “basic errors.” Thanks again for this post!
Exactly, Melody. Thanks for commenting! Educators and students should see revision as a way of (re)thinking and learning, not as a time for error correction.
I appreciate the opening analogy of the stiff, formal shoes, and offer an extension of it: remember the distinctions we ladies were given growing up between “routine” or daytime makeup application and “formal” or evening makeup application? Everyday makeup included your typical foundation, blusher, mascara, and lipstick. That was all, folks, because that’s all there is time for. Your tools for application included sponge for foundation, brush for blush, mascara brush, and lipstick. This reminds me of the typical tools students have for communicating in many common, non-academic writing situations. Most students already have an instinct for their basic rhetorical situation– they know their audience, their message, and their medium, and they shape the message using those tools. For more formal or evening makeup, women are given the fancy tools: primer (yes, there is such a thing as primer before foundation, and it is amazing), foundation, bronzer/glow, blush, eyeliner, eyeshadow, mascara, finishing powder, lipliner, lip color, and lip gloss. This is more of a “sit at the mall makeup counter for an hour before prom” or “pay the gal doing your wedding hair an extra seventy bucks to do your makeup” situation today. Students have to do more work to their writing to get the message across in formal academic settings, and they need more tools. You have outlined those tools for revision from daytime/informal to evening/formal beautifully.
I like where you took the analogy, Molly–to the tools for revision. Thanks for the comment. Students do have to do more to connect with their academic readers, and not lose sight of themselves or the purpose of their writing in the process of trying out those new tools.