Writing (or Why I Take the Quality of My Students’ Writing Seriously)

writeI evaluate my students’ writing against exacting standards. As a consequence, students often complain that I grade their writing too harshly. Some tell me that they were considered good writers by other teachers. Others cannot understand why I weigh their writing so heavily in a philosophy class—”after all, it’s not an English class, right?”

To start with the last complaint first: Strong writing is essential to your success in every class you take and every discipline you study, as well as to success in your career. People who can communicate well are more likely to excel in college, more likely to graduate with honors, are more attractive to potential employers, and are more likely to advance in their careers. English, philosophy, history, physics, architecture, business, law, whatever—writing is central to a person’s achievements in all of these fields, and in life.

Secondly, I cannot judge the writing students have done for other people. I can only judge the writing students have done for me. If students have been told that they are good writers but receive a poor grade from me on a paper, this could be because the student is not writing up to their abilities. After all, some of the best writers in the world have turned out poor writing at different times in their lives. Another more straightforward possibility is that when people have told the student they were a good writer, they were wrong. In any case, I can only judge my students’ writing by widely accepted conventional standards of English.

Finally, the chief reason I make severe demands on my students’ writing is that expressing one’s self in words is central to what it means to be human. There is the world on one side, and you on the other. Everything that you are—your personality, your beliefs, your ideas, your knowledge—is inside you. The world knows nothing of these things until you express them. When you are asked to “explain yourself,” to “flesh out an idea,” to “argue for your point of view,” you are being asked to bring part of yourself out into the world. Writing is the most sophisticated means of doing this. Writing helps you to move through the world, cultivating relationships with family, friends, lovers, acquaintances and colleagues. Writing well enhances the quality of these relationships; not writing well diminishes them. Not writing at all is to largely remain a mystery to the world, alone.

This is why it might seem as if I grade my students’ writing too harshly.

Unfortunately, my experience is that most students arrive at college with underdeveloped writing skills. When they put words to paper they tend to do so awkwardly, as if they were trying manipulate an artificial limb to which they have not yet grown accustomed. I have thought at length about why this is, and my best guess is that it is because students don’t read as much as they should, or if they do read they don’t read very good writing. The best advice I can offer students who want to improve their writing is to read good writing, then write. Keep doing this—read good writing, write, read some more, etc. Like anything else, becoming a good writer requires practice.

This suggests that writing can be improved, and that is the good news. In fact, we all probably think we can write better than we actually do. I am no exception. I have been writing seriously for several years, but I still have some bad writing habits on which I have to work. All writing can be improved, and in my classes that is my goal—to improve my students’ writing by working to eliminate bad habits.

By improving a students’ writing I do not mean working on the development of their “voice” or “style”—in other words, a mode of expression a writer has developed that is uniquely theirs, and with which the writer is comfortable. Developing one’s own unique style or voice is a task intimate to each writer, and this task takes years to achieve. My students have plenty of time—the rest of their lives—to do this, if they apply themselves to this very worthy goal.

Rather than demanding from the outset that my students write like Shakespeare, Joyce, Austen or Morrison, my goal is for students to be able to write a complete and coherent sentence, paragraph and paper. These are achieved through careful attention to thesis development and support, organization, structure, transitions, word choice, spelling, grammar, syntax, and punctuation. In short, my goal is to enhance the clarity of students’ expression. My contention is that a students’ “voice” can only emerge from this exercise of striving for clarity, because it is only through clarity that a student can recognize the possibility of seeing the value of developing such a voice. By achieving clarity, the student can inspect the quality of their own ideas and be inspired to express them in a voice that speaks more from their own unique perspective of the world.

Again, achieving clarity (and developing a “voice,” for that matter) requires practice. Language is a limb, as much a part of the student as their arms or legs. If it is not used or exercised, like any other muscle system it will wither away and become useless. Exercising language should be understood as a process, and this process should be understood in terms of re-writes. In my classes, students are encouraged to re-write their papers as many times as they like. Those students who take advantage of this policy almost inevitably earn excellent grades; those who do not tend to be deeply disappointed with their grades.

In summary, the strength or weakness of their writing skills is wholly up to the individual student. If a student fails to develop these skills, their world will be impoverished; if they work to strengthen these skills, their world will be enlarged and enriched to an immeasurable degree.