Good Writers, Bad Grades

For quite some time, I’ve seen an interesting pattern among students who said that they were “good writers,” but unfortunately they don’t receive a good grade at the end of the semester, which I wish they did. As a writing teacher, I don’t want these confident writers to change their self-perception in any of my writing courses. But I have to grade all students on the basis of the assignment’s instructions and objectives as they are specified in advance.

The case of a self-described “good writer,” Brian (not his real name), has been the most memorable one among those of students who somehow couldn’t write well in spite of their claims and, presumably, backgrounds as good writers.

During the introduction activity at the first class meeting of a first year writing course a few semesters ago, Brian told the class that he had always written well in high school and that he “loved writing.” He was, no doubt, a brilliant student who shared quick and critical responses during the discussion of readings in class; every time the class started talking about writing, he had even more to add to the conversation.

Unfortunately, Brian’s ideas about writing well didn’t fit the kind of writing that he was expected to do in my class (and more generally in a lot of college courses). For example, Brian said that he hated, and thus avoided, adding explicit thesis statements at the beginning of his papers. No matter how much I (and his peers) tried to challenge him, he also insisted that topic sentences make paragraphs “horrible” to read. Even more surprising, Brian avoided making explicit connections by using connecting words, pointing words, or repetitions/synonyms.

Brian believed that good writing is a matter of inspiration and creativity so he didn’t bother to plan, organize, rewrite, or revise anything; he only edited and proofread his drafts. He moved from one issue to another “associatively,” letting his thought process take him where it would as he wrote, rather than striving to focus on the essay’s central topic/argument; he wanted readers to make the effort to follow the flow of his thoughts on paper.

He was almost angry with me when he realized that the four major papers for the class had to be written within the four broad and corresponding subjects about which the class did readings for the course (higher education, globalization, popular culture, the American Dream). He unsuccessfully demanded that he be allowed to write on topics of his own choice (because he said he would write much better if he didn’t have to choose topics from within the specified subject areas). On top of that, especially as a result of trying to write on the spur of what he called “last minute inspiration,” Brian had to redo the assignment for two out of four papers; to make the matter worse, he tried to refuse to revise the drafts after being told that they didn’t fulfill the basic demands of the assignment. For example, in one of the two cases, instead of writing a “discussion/exploratory essay” on a specific issue of his choice within the subject of area higher education, he wrote a powerful but completely one-sided “argument” critiquing college education in general, refused to focus on a specific topic/issue, and didn’t consider multiple perspectives. If I was not generous enough to give him time to redo the two assignments after their deadlines, he would have failed the whole course.

Brian’s confidence about being a good writer, as well as his insistence about what good writing is, seemed to lead him to overlook critical instructions in the assignment prompts, to miss deadlines, and to not take full advantage of the writing process and support from peer reviewers and instructor. He didn’t really learn how to write more effectively from my class.

So, I tell students that there are no “good” and “bad” writers outside of what they do. I tell them to write as they are expected to write by the community of readers and writers that you are in. And I tell them that in college, most teachers don’t expect students to write like novelists. They expect writing where ideas are fleshed out and explicitly framed and focused, writing that is straightforward. Writing well doesn’t mean writing “creatively” and “cleverly” in most academic genres. Academic writing demands more explicitness than creativity, and teachers in many disciplines and courses in college explicitly demand “thesis-driven” writing.

Let me conclude by sharing this list of seven qualities of effective academic writing that I teach in many of my writing courses.


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