Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Writing Advice: Take Your Time

Seems like I'm back to writing about teaching and my students after a bit of a break to talk about higher education more generally. Today, I handed back an essay assignment to my first-year composition students. Being that this is second semester, most of the students taking my class either failed their first try or did developmental writing during the fall semester. Needless to say, anything we write in the class is a huge challenge for both the students and myself.

I blindsided them in a way by demanding that they have a meaningful thesis for their recent compare and contrast essay. I struggled with how to help them figure out what meaningful things they could say in their essay without simply telling them, your essay could be about x, y, or z. I wanted them to work through it on their own. Each student had their own unique ideas, as well as their own unique set of challenges. How, then, do I maximize my effectiveness? 

It turned out that the only way I could do it was to work with them one-on-one. I read and gave detailed feedback to a draft and set aside class time for conferences. A large part of what I ended up having to do was cheerleading, reassuring that yes, they did have a good thesis, examples, and organization. Yes, I had to talk out some of their thesis or suggest better examples, but for the most part my students had good ideas that they just didn't believe were good. But, to me, it felt like pulling teeth, getting this essay out of my students.

When the long (we worked on this essay for almost a month) process was finally completed and the students handed in their essays, I was thrilled with the results. Each student had, indeed, found their thesis and crafted an essay that tied their sometimes disparate examples together. The class, or at least the part of the class that actively participated in the process, did very well. And I told them as much. But I also pointed out the one important factor in their success: time. They took the time to work on their essays. The time and effort paid off, but they needed to understand that if they wanted to continue being successful in their essay writing, they needed to give themselves the time.

Learn what is the most difficult part of the writing process and start early enough to get that part done without panicking or rushing. Look at your schedule for the semester, and rather than blocking out the weekend before the essay is due, block off the one two weeks before it is due. Even if you're not actively writing, at least plan to start thinking/reading/free writing/outlining on the topic. Take the time to sit down and run your ideas by the professor at least a week before the essay is due (it'll look good for your ethos, too). Allow yourself an opportunity to try, fail, and then try again. Make sure you can read through the essay at least once, carefully, before handing it in. 

All of this takes time. I tell my students that one thing that I do is give them the gift of time in my class to allow for them to see that if they take the time, they'll get results. I'm hoping that if they can see the impact extra time has on their final work and final grade, they'll really take the lesson to heart. I'm not optimistic, I'm sorry to say, but at least I tried. And I can also sleep well at night knowing that, for at least one essay, we did it and we did it well.


  1. Great post. You say a few things that are really important. Making a start is always hard, but once you start, the rest is easier because you naturally want to finish what you've begun. Also, being prepared to fail is good as well, it can really put things into perspective and help you learn.

  2. Neat stuff. I do think that writing one essay very well teaches students far more than writing four essays not-so-well. It sets up an ideal they can write towards and use as a guide when they are writing later on.


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