We Can All Become Better Writers
September 1, 2015
By Colleen O'Connell, Graduate Assistant
If you've spent in any time in the Writing Center or a tutor has visited one of your classes to talk about the Writing Center, there's a good chance you've heard our mantra: Better writers, not better papers.
Without explanation, the mantra may have made you think, "What? You don't care about my paper?" That sort of reaction is completely reasonable, but the truth is, the mantra could be restated as "We want to help you become better writers, not just to help you write a better paper." Essentially, our goal is to meet you where you are and, with you, look at where you could go next in developing your writing skills. The paper you bring with you is the ladder to your broader writing goals. During your session, we'll metaphorically hold the ladder while you climb. Then, the next time you work on a paper, you'll be able to start from a higher rung on your ladder.
I know that if you don't like to write or don't think you have a lot of need for writing in your future, you probably feel like you're really just interested in producing a better paper to get a better grade. You might think that being a better writer isn't necessarily important to you. Those thoughts and feelings are logical; no one wants to climb a ladder unless it helps reach something you really need. Your time and effort are precious resources; you don't want to waste them. However, developing as a writer is important to any academic or professional goals you might have.
For example, during my time working in office and business settings between getting my bachelor's degree and starting my graduate program, my ability to communicate in writing was often the skill that set me apart not just when I was applying and interviewing for a position, but also when I was collaborating with coworkers, building professional relationships, and managing and directing colleagues. However, when I first started working, I found myself needing to become a better writer for this new non-school setting and audience despite having always thought of myself as a "good writer."
In my undergraduate career, I majored in English Literature and Creative Writing. My climb as an undergraduate started with me having good but, often, underdeveloped ideas. Throughout my program, I used the ladder of peer and professor feedback to learn to fully communicate a complete analysis, to demonstrate my thinking, and, especially in creative writing, to really write in a vivid and engaging style. Often, I found myself adding more details, whether it was making sure that I fully unpacked a quotation or editing a poem or story to pull my reader out of their own world and into the one I created.
However, when I started working in business settings, I quickly found being pulled away from reality was the last thing that my colleagues wanted. As a reader, I found that long emails, ones in which a colleague was explaining a point or a new policy, were hampered by extraneous words. These unnecessary additions struck me as distracting, even inconsiderate, in that workplace situation. I found myself in a setting where writing and reading was now part of my life in a completely new way. Out of necessity, office emails and documents describing organizational policy or how to conduct business had replaced in-person discussions. Often, I was part of teams where members were in different buildings or in completely different cities, and each of us had different schedules and sometimes even lived in different time zones. Our ability to work together and to complete independent work required each of us to be able to communicate clearly, quickly, and efficiently. Good communication enabled us to truly benefit from the knowledge and feedback from each other and to immediately apply it to the tasks we needed to do alone.
When I realized my writing style needed serious adjustment, I spent a great deal of time learning to write in a way that was much more directive and business-like. In my free time, I looked back at my emails and my documents to see how I could have said something more clearly and concisely. I was also able to connect with a mentor who was kind enough to give me feedback on drafts of some emails and documents I wrote. I will be forever thankful for her help because, ultimately, my writing skills made me easy to work with and caused me to be frequently identified as a great communicator and team member. Even though I was not a "writer" in title and the goals of my work were not necessarily writing-oriented, my successes could be directly tied back to my writing skills.
Now that I'm in school again, I'm writing in a new discipline, education, and more often than not, I'm writing in APA, a format I rarely used as an undergrad. Even though I'm writing in an academic setting once more, I've found the same need to be as succinct as possible in both my papers and lesson plans. My professors certainly want my analysis to be complete, but, like my former business colleagues, they don't want me to wax poetic for pages on end. Because my lesson plans necessarily include a set of directions, the writing must be as clear and brief as possible. As I work on individual papers and lessons, I, too, make appointments and time for peer feedback to help stabilize the ladder I'm climbing to reach the concision necessary to be a better writer in this new rhetorical situation.