Revisiting Emig and Why Writing is Hard

by Chrissine Rios, MA, Kaplan University Writing Center

Every month I post to this blog, and every month I don’t know what to write, so I thought this time I’d ask you. How can I help you? What’s been on your mind about teaching or tutoring writing? Is there any part of writing that is particularly difficult to teach? Or, better: What do you perceive as the hardest part of writing for students to learn?

I keep expecting any day now to meet the students who since Kindergarten have been “making self-impelled meaning through the written word” (Moffett as cited in Emig, 1983, p. 174). I’m anticipating the arrival of a new wave of students who grew up with the power of writing—fully aware that words make meaning and are agents and catalysts of social action and self-awareness. I’m optimistic that over the next 15 or so years before I retire, I will meet college students whose pressing concerns about writing are not whether their sentences are correct but how they make a difference.

Maybe it’s all the expectations of academic writing that get in the way of our students’ own thoughts and imaginings, or it’s the writing assignments intended to test learning instead of engage students in learning, but I seem to be reading more and more papers formed almost entirely of summaries, paraphrases, and quotes. The research is extensive, even in 100-level courses, and for the most part, the sources are credible—the Internet is a many-splendored thing—yet I strain to understand the point of the writing, and I’m not entirely sure that the student strained to make one, knew how to, or knew to make one at all, as though the purpose of writing is not to say something original but to say what someone else said.

During my first year of college I had a visiting professor from England who came all the way to Northwestern Michigan College to teach English Composition. Wanting him to like my writing, I selected a topic from the list he gave us that seemed personally relevant to him and interesting to me: a geographical survey of England. I had traveled in and out of the U. S. a bit before starting college as a 26 year-old, so while I knew nothing about the geography of England other than it was on an island and near Ireland, I liked learning about new places. I did thorough research, and I accurately cited everything. Everything. I could neither believe nor understand how I did not get an A, so I went straight up to his desk after class and asked him: “Why didn’t I get an A? I did everything correctly.” His answer became an enigma for some years to come: “Yes, you did. But that’s all you did.”

I understood what he meant only after many more teachers and much practice with college-level writing.

In “Literacy and Freedom,” the last chapter in Janet Emig’s 1983 book, Web of Meaning, Emig explains that students do not innately write beyond recapitulating what they’ve read because of the historically unbalanced views of literacy in the U. S. educational system. Whereas literacy should be “a double helix of reading and of writing” (p. 172), literacy is defined as the ability to read and comprehend texts. Writing is not considered, let alone treated as a vehicle for expressing original ideas, which is how we view writing at the college level, from my perspective, anyway.

I happened to be talking to my brother on the phone while I was writing this, and I told him I was musing over the hardest part about writing for students. Like me, he went to grade school during the 70’s, but he started college right out of high school and returned only a little after finishing his BA to earn a masters in accounting. “What is the hardest part of writing for you?” I asked him. He answered directly: “What’s hard is that I have nothing to say.”

According to Moffett (as cited in Emig, 1983) older students who claim to have “nothing to write have simply spent their school days copying, paraphrasing, and fitting given content into given forms; they have never had a chance to see themselves as authors composing their inner speech toward a creation of their own” (p. 175). For Moffett, older students were born before 1963. Older students today would be those born before 1995. How’s that for perspective?

In 1999 when I first read Emig’s Web of Meaning, I was earning my MA in English Composition and Communication at Central Michigan University. Students were writing across the curriculum and being tutored at the Writing Center; composition students were reflecting in journals, revising essays for their portfolios, and crafting literary or creative nonfiction essays for their narrative assignments as well as their research papers—and not only in the courses I taught. The “reading obsessed” views of literacy seemed as dead as Current-Traditionalism and the banking concept of education.

In one of my graduate seminars, the chair of my teaching assistantship program, Dr. Taylor, drew a T on the chalkboard to create two columns, and she labeled the left column “What” and the right column “So what?” This, she said, was a pre-learning/pre-writing strategy for teaching students how to analyze print advertisements for their upcoming “Analysis of an Ad” assignment. The “What” column is where our students were to list their observations about the ad. The “So what?” column is where they were to express how the observed details mattered. I can’t claim that without prompting, I would know to do more than interpret the details according to the modes of argument or appeals of rhetoric we were discussing in class. Asking “So what?” helped students think about what they were saying, what it meant, and why it mattered.

The activity also helped students see and develop their own writing processes as it was an ungraded pre-writing activity; it gave students the opportunity to see their writing assignment as “doable”—one of Cambourne’s preconditions for learning. I learned about Cambourne from my Rhetoric and Composition professor, Dr. John Dinan, the best instructor ever and my source for Cambourne’s strategies: To be doable, assignments must be broken into manageable tasks, and in-class activities should rehearse the kind of writing they are expected to do in their essay assignment. At every stage of the process too, feedback must be positive and support each student’s selective focus, strategy, and individual varieties of the learning process—writing assignments should not be as Dinan said and maybe Cambourne too: “this way or the highway.”

I’ve heard so many criticisms of assignments over my academic career, not just from students and tutors but also from teachers; most everyone agrees that some assignments to some degree are culpable for some of the shallow writing students do. In fact, many of those assignments were written by those with older literacy histories than our older students. But we need to also take our students’ literacy histories into consideration. The paradigm has not changed all that much in 30 years. Yet I remain optimistic.

I believe all writers have the same innate urge that I do to write meaningfully, and it’s my work to invoke that urge, to ask, “So what?”

I’m also hopeful because my first-grader has reading and writing homework every school day (except Fridays). His reading assignment is, well, to read for no less than ten minutes and to consider the setting, characters, beginning, middle, and end, and the problem. His writing assignment is a worksheet. Sometimes it is to write sentences in response to questions. But oftentimes it’s math or science, not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I do not think Emig or Moffett would call the scales of reading and writing balanced just yet.

He did tell me that he writes a literacy journal in class, however, and his one from Kindergarten last year included narratives about experiences and statements about favorite things. Some of them even ended with “because…”

By the way, I also asked him what the hardest part of writing is for him. He answered, “The hardest part of writing is not disturbing you.”

What is the hardest part of writing for you?


Emig, J. (1983). Web of meaning: Essays on writing, teaching, learning,

and thinking. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

4 Responses

  1. I’m sure I also have latent memories that have stifled my writerly confidence. I also find it hardest to write what matters to me the most.

    I like the example you gave about your son and how he is being taught to answer questions in writing. Last year, when my son was in Kindergarten learning to write answers to questions with full sentences, he got one wrong because he began it with “because.” I understood the error, but his teacher neglected to point out that he did have both a subject and a predicate—both parts required of a complete sentence. Is there not a developmentally appropriate way to teach about subordinators? He didn’t know why his answer was incorrect. I showed him he had all the parts of a complete sentence plus one, a connecting word used when joining sentences. To simply say what he wrote was wrong is why I think it’s best to assess writing through writing, but it still needs to be read mindfully as you said.

    My son’s same Kindergarten teacher also said on his report card, “As he is answering written comprehension questions, I would like to see him work on going back to the text and citing evidence to support his answers.” It made my son feel better when I told him we teach this in college too. But if teaching Kindergartners how to reference texts in their writing is developmentally appropriate then so should teaching how subordinators make clauses dependent. I think that was one of Emig’s points too when she put writing about literature in the reading camp whereas more attention in literacy education is given to recapping readings than writing original ideas.

    I suppose our kids are lucky to have writing teachers as parents, but I’m far more confident teaching college students. I count on his teachers to do their part.

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Melody.

  2. The hardest part of writing for me is getting started with the writing that matters to me. I could blame a lack of time to write, but the truth is we make time for things that are important. If I am honest, like your brother, I worry that I have nothing new to say or I worry how what I say will be perceived. So, sitting down and actually doing it – the writing I want to do – is the hardest.

    Like Emig, I believe we all have stories to tell (or write), but someone has to give us permission that is okay to tell our stories. And, it is okay to tell them in are own ways.

    My son (4th grade) brought home a paper with red ink corrections last night. This year his teacher is very focused on ensuring they use part of the question to answer any questions about the story they have read.

    e.g. Why did Davy go underwater to get his spear?
    Davy went underwater to get his spear because. . . .

    If he does not answer that way exactly, he get points off. The truth is my son (in the example I was reading this morning) used a more rhetorically advanced writing technique than the one she was requiring to answer the question. His content was correct, grammar and punctuation were correct, and the answer was well written, but the answer did not conform, so he lost points. While the teacher has her reasons for her methods, I think all teachers and tutors, including myself, must constantly be mindful of what the student is doing well (like Elbows the Believing Game) and may be doing some things better than we expect. When we are in a hurry, we can miss that.

    Maybe our students have latent memories of this sort that keep them (and me) from having the confidence we need to tell our stories in our way.

    Thanks for your great thoughts, Chrissine.

  3. Great piece! I do believe your assumptions are correct. However, confidence is needed in order to do the type of writing you are talking about. Sadly I’ve found that many of my students are simply struggling with the basics like grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and the like. That challenge is so crippling they are unable to create well throughout and well written essays that include great content and creativity. Wish I knew how to fix that problem beyond throwing out our entire K-12 educational system and starting over from scratch. Well a girl can dream can’t she….

    • Thank you for the terrific feedback. I agree with you that writing meaningfully also requires confidence. Great point.

      In this piece I was reacting to the overuse of source information, but like you, I also read papers by students whose fundamental writing skills need the most attention. Even if we weren’t assessing the skills according to the standards and expectations of college-level, academic writing, but rather, for everyday use, they’d still be “crippling.” Makes me question early reading education too and how much reading the students have done throughout their lives–where are folks getting/seeing these grammar constructions? I’ve seen some pretty interesting verb conjugations recently and whole paragraphs of gerund phrases without a single conjugated verb. I hope with our teaching, those who struggle with the fundamentals find it a great relief that they don’t have to create the language from scratch but only learn how to use it. 🙂 Thanks again for your comment.

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