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The Gray Box is operated by David Voelker, Associate Professor of Humanistic Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. (More)

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Sunday
Sep302012

Telling Students the Truth about Good Writing

Most of my posts here will be a bit more scholarly that what is to follow, which is a brief reflection on some evolution in the way I think about student writing. In a nutshell, I am increasingly comfortable with the idea that some students might always need help with aspects of their writing, and they may as well figure this out sooner rather than later and strategically ask for help.

To begin, I should confess that I am a stickler when it comes to writing. I like my thesis statements obvious, my compound adjectives hyphenated, and my independent clauses separated by proper punctuation. When I read uncopyedited manuscripts, I make sure the hypens, em dashes, and en dashes are all in order. And so on.

Although I no longer “mark up” student papers[1]–because the research on teaching writing shows that this is not usually an effective pedagogical strategy–I do hold my students accountable for several basic writing rules, which I publish in a custom “Handbook for Writing Historical Essays.” (Here’s a link to a slightly dated version.) Among other things, I require student papers to use standard spelling, grammatically correct sentences, gender-inclusive language, and integrated quotations.

One of the most vexing problems that I encounter in student writing deals with the “complete sentences” rule that is so dear to my heart. Every semester, I have two or three students who habitually write comma splices or other kinds of run-on sentences. I think that comma splices bother me so much because I misread them every time, as my mind tries to make some tortured syntax work. Once I recognize the run-on, of course, I simply back up and re-read the would-be sentence, perhaps a little grumpy for being forced to retrace my steps.

Whenever I encounter a student who tends to write comma splices, I send them to this excellent online handout from the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One time a student thanked me for the explanation and really did seem to benefit, but I have learned from long experience that few students who are writing comma splices by the time they enter college are able to mend their ways so easily.

I think that I am finally coming to terms with this cold, harsh truth. Although I will continue to fling around handouts about how to write complete sentences and such, I am ready to embrace a new strategy: letting students in on the secret that (virtually) all good writers (almost) always have another good writer read over their material before they share it with their intended audience.

For several years, in fact, my writing assignments have encouraged students to have someone (not in the class) read over their essays before they submit them. This fall, I went a step further and included the following note on the syllabus for an upper-level history course:

A note about writing: Producing a polished final document does not have to be an individualistic effort. Although the standard rules about academic honesty always apply—meaning that you must cite the sources from which you borrow ideas and information—I encourage you to ask a friend with strong grammar and spelling skills to help proofread your work. Even strong writers benefit from this practice. If your own writing is technically shaky at this stage of your academic career, then you should probably accept this limitation and find ways to deal with it.

Most important here is the final sentence, in which I suggest that students who know they have particular writing wrinkles that they haven’t been able to iron out should make a habit of relying on a friend to help them clean up their prose.

There are times and places where this practice might be seen as cheating, but I think that this is an unfair conception of what good writing should be. If I am correct that (virtually) all good writers (almost) always have another good writer read over their material before they share it with their intended audience, then we should be teaching our students to do the same.[2]


  1. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. I personally did learn from heavily marked up papers–but then I was the kind of student who almost immediately wanted to become a professor. I return the favor when I am working with students under certain circumstances, such as independent studies and honors projects. But I generally give feedback using a flexible but detailed rubric, which requires students to identify their own errors and figure out how to apply the advice that I am giving them rather than making changes mechanically.  ↩

  2. I am well aware that peer workshops and peer editing have been an essential part of composition pedagogy for decades, but I do not see that this practice has caught on outside of “comp” courses.  ↩

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Reader Comments (1)

I just found your blog (can't remember exactly how, but someone had "Scooped" it and I found the scoop through some web search or other), and I'm glad I did. I have a blog on SoTL and philosophy (http://blogs.ubc.ca/chendricks, and haven't yet found many other people who are blogging about SoTL work. I'm just starting off in the whole SoTL field, though, so I have a lot to learn!

I agree with everything you say here, and share your frustrations. I have been doing "markup" for grammar and punctuation, and know it's not useful for most students, but am not sure what else to do. I am intrigued by the process you refer to in fn. 1, about asking them to find their own errors. Can you elaborate? I'd love to find a better way to deal with grammar and punctuation that actually requires that students go back and find their errors and correct them!

March 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChristina Hendricks

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