Last term I made the mistake of taking 19 credits. For some students, a 19-credit term is the norm. But those students have a level of self-discipline that I can only dream of. And for a while now, I’ve been the student that manages to get things done, but usually not until the night before class, or even the hour before class. Of the six classes I was taking, one was a speech class, two were English classes, and one was a writing class.
Between those four classes, I was expected to do a lot of reading and writing (tasks that I was surprisingly slow at for being an English major, and also tasks that suffered the most from my increasing use of technology and social media). My writing class, WRIT 210, or, the Peer Reader in Context, was one of the most demanding. Each week, we were asked to read weighty essays from our anthology, Ways of Reading, and then post a response to a prompt from the book. Moreover, we had to respond to a classmate’s post, and then be ready to discuss the essay at length in class. Being a class of only about twelve students, everyone was very much accountable for the work they did (or didn’t do).
My memory of the first day of the class is still strong. The professor, Dr. Scott Warnock, confidently told my classmates and me that the writing we’d do in the course would be some of the best writing we’d ever done. While there were a variety of majors in my class, I was an English major and had already done a lot of writing, so I was skeptical. This was a class about tutoring, I thought, not creative writing. And so, I decided that Dr. Warnock’s comments were targeted more toward the computer science majors or the engineering majors than me.
For the first few weeks of the term, I struggled to find my footing in that class, and in the rest of my classes too. I had to do school work starting as soon as my classes ended until late at night if I wanted to get all my assignments done. And as a former Netflix addict and chronic Facebook scroller, I wasn’t used to having so little free time. Somehow, I was able to do my homework on time each week, yet, I was producing subpar writing. I lacked motivation and creativity. Every writing task I did was like pulling teeth, as I stared at my screen, watching the word count go up one by one.
Suddenly, around week five, everything about WRIT 210 clicked into place for me. I began engaging with the readings more. My writing had more life. My feedback to fellow classmates was more thoughtful and my discussion points in class were more insightful. As promised, by the time the class had ended, I had produced some of the best writing I had ever done. But I wanted to know why. What went right in WRIT 210 to make my classmates and me better writers? After some soul-searching, I developed a list of four factors that made for good writing in WRIT 210, and that make for good writing outside the class as well, because in today’s society, when we are confronted with the task of writing more than ever before, the ability to write well is an important skill to have.
1. The Assignment
Most of the writing I’d done in WRIT 210 was in response to prompts from Ways of Reading. It was these prompts, I thought, that drew creativity out of me, more so than other writing assignments I’d done in the past. I wanted to know why. And how? What makes a good writing prompt? Should it be long or short? Specific or vague? I decided to ask Dr. Warnock, who, apart from being my professor for WRIT 210, is also the director of the University Writing Program and the Writing Center at Drexel University.
“Bad assignments can lead to bad writing.” Dr. Warnock told me. Moreover, he described the ways in which an assignment can be “bad”: “Assignments can ask for too much. If the assignments are overly complicated or don’t have a clear-cut audience then students won’t be able to get a foothold.”
I found this interesting, because while students definitely have a responsibility to understand the assignment and ask questions when they don’t get something, the idea that the assignment or writing prompt can make a student’s writing turn out better or worse shifts some of the responsibility to the professor. As for what a professor should have in mind when developing an assignment? Dr. Warnock said, “Exigence—why you’re doing it. Can the prompt get at what you want it to? Assignment construction is a tricky thing. Assignments should be goal-oriented. They should have outcomes.”
John Bean, an English professor at Seattle University, addresses this topic in his book, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. He notes that when assigning writing projects, professors often take the traditional route of asking for a term paper on any aspect of the course, approving a thesis statement halfway through the term, and then accepting papers at the end of the class. Bean believes that for some students “such freedom is debilitating.” Moreover, he writes, “these students are apt to produce wandering ‘all about’ papers rather than arguments or quasi-plagiarized data dumps with long, pointless quotations and thinly disguised paraphrases.”
Bean offers an alternative approach to writing assignments that relates more closely to the “goal-oriented” model that Dr. Warnock mentioned. He discusses the methods of finance professor, Dean Drenk, who assigns many short thesis-driven papers throughout the term and asks his students to pick a stance on a controversial topic in finance and argue it. Bean notes, “Each thesis support assignment requires students to understand and use key course concepts while simultaneously practicing the methods of inquiry, research, and argumentation in finance.” Moreover, Drenk lets students rewrite papers for better grades and provides extensive feedback “on the quality of critical thinking, the clarity of writing, and the adequacy of empirical support.”
When having to choose between the more traditional, open-ended term paper and the more goal-oriented (and more frequent) short essays, to me, the latter are more effective learning tools. Rather than putting all their eggs in one basket to explore one class-related issue, students are encouraged (and even forced) to think critically about many class-related issues. In WRIT 210, my classmates and I did short writing assignments each week based on the readings, and each week after getting feedback from the instructor and each other, our writing improved. Had we been asked to do a longer assignment in response to just one essay, we wouldn’t have seen as much improvement.
Of course, good writing extends past the assignment. Especially when writing isn’t being done for a professor or a class. That’s when the other factors come into play.
2. Critical Thinking
In my discussion with Dr. Warnock, in John Bean’s Engaging Ideas, and in my reflections on my writing class, I saw a recurring theme: critical thinking. To me, critical thinking is the ability to deeply question and analyze an issue. I believe the ability to think critically is something we’d all like to think we have… until we realize we don’t.
In the introduction for the textbook we read in my writing class, we were encouraged to “read against the grain.” This meant questioning what you read and not blindly agreeing with the author no matter what. Sometimes it meant rereading. Sometimes it meant carefully annotating. But for the first few readings, I did find myself in accordance with the authors we read. Many of us been trained since elementary school to take everything our teachers tell us as absolute truth. This also meant, of course, being in complete agreement with the readings they assigned or the videos they showed.
Unfortunately, this model that I spent my whole life learning made me a very passive reader, and a very bored reader. When I started to question the ideas of the writers I was reading, I found that I was more engaged with the writing, whether I agreed with it or not. It made me aware of the authors’ biases, which made me aware of my own biases. Critical thinking encouraged a reflexivity and self-awareness on my part that made my writing more informed, my thinking sharper, and my voice more genuine.
And in the age of technology and social media, critical thinking is more important than ever before. Everywhere we look, we are presented with competing political headlines and news stories, and we must take it upon ourselves to sort through what we can believe and trust and what we cannot. And then, we must decide what our opinions on all of it are. The way we write actually begins with the way we read, listen, and think.
Moreover, our ability to think critically must be maintained and honed. To keep these skills sharp, we must read, discuss, and experience things that challenge us. This could involve reading up on a topic that we know little about, or talking to people that have different views than us. If we are in the practice of thinking critically, it will show in our writing.
In discussing the writing assignment, Dr. Warnock mentioned the need for exigence on behalf of the professor. Similarly, there is a need for exigence on behalf of the student. Exigence is the need or sense of urgency behind a task. Students must find that need to complete their assignments from within themselves. I am lucky to have an interest in writing. I enjoy doing it. And even if I don’t love doing certain writing assignments, I am able to articulate myself half-decently, and to come up with a strategy for writing. Some people aren’t so lucky.
I have a twin sister; although, sometimes it feels that we are twins in birthday alone. I have always been more creative and language-oriented, while she has always been more logical and science-oriented. So when she’s assigned writing in her discipline, it usually means one thing, procrastination. I almost always know when she has a writing assignment, because she almost always offers me 20 bucks to write it (jokingly, I’m sure, but the offer usually doubles when the due date comes and she has yet to begin).
However, even within her discipline, some writing assignments engage her more than others. For instance, she wrote an op-ed arguing the need for zoos. She volunteers at a zoo and has a strong stance on this topic, so she enjoyed writing about it, and she churned out a final product that earned a good grade and that she could be proud of. Moreover, at my urging, she entered her piece in a writing contest and went on to win first place for the op-ed category. On the other hand, she was assigned an analytical paper about coral bleaching, a topic she had no interest in. She described the paper as a data-dump, and she hated every second spent working on it. She dreaded doing the assignment and wasn’t pleased with the final outcome of the paper.
So, what do we do when we can’t find the urgency to write? This question reminds me of a reading I did about tutoring grad students in writing. In her article “Developing Genre Discourse: Graduate Student Writing,” Carol Ellis writes, “It is the tutor’s job to remind the graduate students that they really are intrigued by, and want to write about, their topics, and that a mind learning through writing can be ecstasy.” I think this is something we have to remind ourselves about every once in awhile as well. And if we are not intrigued by our topic, hopefully we are intrigued enough by our discipline to realize that the writing we are asked to do will benefit us in it.
I recently talked to a friend who is majoring in electrical engineering and is taking a required introductory writing course. He was having a hard time focusing and said, “Help motivate me to write this paper.” I answered with, “Do you wanna be an engineer?” If this class was a prerequisite for getting his engineering degree, he was going to have to write the paper and pass the class. It was no locker room pep talk. In fact, it was short, sweet, and probably not all that helpful. But he said, “good point.”
The need for exigence goes beyond the classroom and school writing. Sometimes, to find it, we must step back and look at the bigger picture.
Collaboration is the factor that would have surprised me most about this list before taking WRIT 210. And that’s because in my many experiences peer-editing in high school, and in my relatively few experiences peer-editing in college (prior to WRIT 210), I hadn’t found the practice particularly helpful. I’d found that people weren’t genuinely interested in reviewing my writing, nor were they particularly interested in my thoughts on their writing. These apathetic attitudes encouraged a vicious cycle of doing the bare minimum to get a decent grade. Even in the early stages of WRIT 210, the feedback was a bit formulaic, a few rigid compliments mixed with a few obligatory suggestions for improvement.
However, when I got assigned to read a classmate’s midterm portfolio, I was blown away. I was able to forget that I was reading it for a grade and read it the way I was meant to be reading it, as a peer. From then on, I attended to all my peer-editing with that same approach, and just as negativity encourages negativity, positivity encourages positivity, so the more helpful feedback I gave out, the more helpful feedback I received. I also met with my instructor twice that term to discuss assignments, and how the class was going. After each meeting, I felt motivated.
We need encouragement sometimes. Genuine, honest encouragement. We need people to tell us what’s working and what isn’t working, because if we stare at our own writing for too long, we’ll lose our minds.
The good thing, and maybe also the difficult thing about the four factors of writing, is that they all tie in together. The way an assignment is written and read is a collaborative effort between professor and student. Exigence is found within writers through critical thinking. Each factor plays off the others and even sometimes depends on them.
And when we move past required essays and school writing, we can still put the factors to good use. The assignment may be implied. It could be a business memo, or even a Facebook post. But no matter what it is, we must employ critical thinking, because we are sharing it with an audience, and it is reflecting ourselves: who we are, and how we think. Whatever writing task we’re embarking on should have exigence behind it, and if it doesn’t, we must wonder, why are we doing it? And finally, we must share it, with our coworkers, with our friends, or with the world, if that’s what we choose. And in doing so, we must remember that our writing should add something to the world, not clutter it up.