Tuesday, December 7, 2010

End-of-Semester Advice for Writers

The semester is coming to an end. My developmental writers are getting ready to hand in their last essays. Most have shown great improvement and proven that they can write at a level that will mean success at the college level. They are more confident writers who are no longer intimidated by having to write "formal" essays for class. They are more critical and active readers who are more adapt at approaching their work, more aware of the need to adapt their skills depending on the task at hand. 

Which I know they will promptly forget how to do the moment they leave my class. Or they will become over-confident in their abilities. Or, they will let college life get the better of them, with teachers who (rightfully) don't build in a lot of time for revision and feedback for assignments. 

One of my biggest pet-peeves is when a professor from another department learns that I teach developmental writing and tells me that we'd better start doing a better job because their students in nursing/engineering/history/whatever can't write. My answer is now that they could write when they left my classroom. Whether or not they choose to write well in other classes is another issue all together.

My advice to students who are moving on from their developmental writing class or even the more traditional Freshman Writing course is to allow yourselves the opportunity to succeed. Don't hand in your "first draft" that you wrote the morning before class. Proofread. Adjust your tone. Make sure you're following directions. Don't write the same paper for every class. Practice writing any and every chance you get. And remember that a professor can't evaluate your ideas if they can't understand them through your writing. 

I've taught my students methods and strategies to be successful college writers. We've practiced them and they have seen that they work. Keep using them in every class. Please. Your college success depends on them. 


  1. I like that comeback: "they could write when they left my class." I get the same thing when I tell people I teach freshman writing (or Composition I).

    Your post got me thinking about my classes too. I would ask them to remember that good writing does not happen over night. They know that when they handed in a rushed draft they didn't get a good grade. When they worked on a draft over and over, they saw the difference. I can't stress that enough.

  2. From what I've seen of your students' work, I think you must be a very good teacher. Students emerging from your developmental writing class are as well-prepared for a college level writing class as most students I get in my first year college classes.

    That level of preparation, however, is not what professors in other departments expect of student writers. I believe what faculty expect has four elements:
    1. Discipline-specific writing topics.
    2. Third person writing.
    3. Appropriate use of sources and evidence to support a thesis.
    4. Absence of writing mechanics errors that the prof recognizes.

    Faculty in other disciplines expect students to come up with course-related writing topics without help. Students are rarely taught how to do that, and most don't figure it out on their own. If your students cannot come up with a 10-page research paper for sociology, you will be blamed for not teaching writing properly.

    A science professor is not going to want to read how students feel about isotopes: s/he will expect students to write on science topics related to the class. The history professor will not want to read about a student's experience in American History class in high school. Faculty in other disciplines will have similar third-person, course-specific writing requirements.

    In other classes, students will need to know how to use published evidence to support their paper's point. The evidence students provide will have to have the standard presentation format: prepare the reader to understand the evidence, present the evidence, explain the significance of the evidence in terms of the paper's thesis.

    In a single English class, you're not going to prepare all your students to write at the level the other faculty expect. (Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could?) However, if you can help students master strategies for applying those four elements in any class they take, other faculty are likely to regard you as having done a good job of teaching.

  3. Thank you all for your kind words. It still surprises me that long-time professors still can't tell a paper from a bad writer and a badly written (pumped out a few sleep-deprived hours before it was due) paper apart. The process I introduce and encourage the students to use gets them to do their best writing. Most of the time, the students won't do that in other classes.

    I try to tell my students about adapting, but one of the problems is that, at the end of the day, I have no idea how to write for the sciences or social sciences. At least not a very good one. Then why am I teaching writing? This is what happens when writing gets ghettoized in English Departments. There are schools (usually small liberal-arts colleges) where all faculty are expected to teach Freshmen Writing (or at least all Humanities faculty). I think it's important for professors outside of English to see just how hard it is, as well as exposing the students to different approaches to writing.


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