What Is "Good" Writing?

What Is "Good" Writing?

By Allan Nail

Associate Professor of English, English Education Program Director, Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC

As a former high school English teacher and current university English professor, I have a different perspective regarding the writing skills of students beginning their studies at our university. For eight years, I had to balance what I knew to be research-informed writing instruction with the needs of outside influences, including year-end testing and college admissions essays. When I joined the academy to help prepare future teachers of English thirteen years ago, particularly in those years before I earned tenure, I often had to bite my tongue when colleagues would complain about the writing abilities of first-year students. 

I knew that middle school and high school ELA teachers were working very hard to meet the sometimes conflicting demands of outside forces. In truth, however, students entering college for the first time do struggle to meet the expectations of college professors for writing. This perceived lack in writing ability has been the focus of not just my English department, but also English departments and universities generally for years. While those of us who teach first-year college students have a role to play, there are approaches that secondary ELA teachers can take that would help this transition.

Picture of a student writing with the words "What is good writing? A college professor weighs in on what he's noticed in incoming freshmen"

These days, most of my teaching is focused on preparing student teachers to enter classrooms of their own. Each semester I teach a course on writing methods, and it gives me a perspective on teaching writing that I wish I had when I was a high school teacher. Over the years I have tried to merge my experiences with struggling first-year college writers with how I prepare my more seasoned students (both undergraduate and graduate) to work with these developing writers before they enter the college ranks. I’m grateful to Missy for allowing me an opportunity to share three of these areas of intersection with you, and I hope you find it useful.

No writing is generic

More than once I’ve heard a colleague of mine exhort, “There’s no such thing as generic writing!” She even has it on a poster in the hall next to the writing lab that she runs. I love this mantra-like expression, and I wish students coming to college not only knew it, but also understood its importance to all college-level writing.

Most college classrooms, and consequently most college professors, do not teach writing. The expectation is that, by the time you begin taking classes at the college level, you already know how to write. We can debate how unhelpful this is, along with a number of other consequences that result from this belief, but the truth remains. Along with the expectation that students can already write passably well is the often unexamined assumption that students can write well in ways that are particular to a specific professor’s discipline.  Any belief that there is a generic form of writing, applicable across a great many disciplinary expectations, is reinforced by this misconception about writing. But each discipline has particular expectations about what qualifies writing as “good” as well as what constitutes poor writing.

One thing I stress in my writing methods class is that all writing has an audience and a purpose, meaning that all writing is written—or should be written—with a particular person or group of people in mind, as well as a clear purpose of what that writing is meant to accomplish. This is an inviolable truth about writing, even writing scribbled late at night in our private journals.

Quote bubble with the image "All Writing Should Be written with a purpose and audience in mind."

I know that purpose and audience are covered in writing classrooms, but I am not sure each is unpacked as it should be. Teachers can provide as much context as possible in authentic writing scenarios, but I think it is equally important to work with student writers to determine for themselves who they are writing for and what that writing is meant to do. As an ELA teacher myself, I always covered the “big three”—personal narratives, analytical essays, and research papers. But students heading to college aren’t only going to take English classes.  Unless they major in English, most of their classes will incorporate writing in ways that do not reflect the particular discourse community of literary analysis. 

Consider this example. As ELA teachers, either introducing or reinforcing the concept of voice, each of us has likely mentioned either directly in our language/writing lessons or in the margins of our students’ papers to “avoid passive voice.” Perhaps we’ve qualified this with “generally speaking” and that, of course, there are exceptions. Day-to-day, however, our writing lessons and assignments reinforce the notion that passive voice is to be avoided. Imagine the confusion of those students who enter college to pursue a career in STEM and are expected to write their lab reports using only passive voice.

See Writing your lab report/worksheet - Chemistry Lab Resources (for CHM 1XX and 2XX Labs) - Library Guides at Purdue University Libraries.

Each professor is both a guide to and a gatekeeper of the discourse communities that comprise their particular discipline. These communities include scholars of history, chemistry, or dance— all programs that use writing as assessments in ways that are unique to their disciplines, and none of which are generic or even (fully) interchangeable. We can better prepare our students for college by talking about the decision-making processes that all writers undertake in determining a writing task’s purpose and audience. At the college level, these decisions need to be informed with information the student gathers each individual professor, but a lot of entering first-year students don’t know this.

Opportunities For Interdisciplinary Writing

Teaching our students about how different disciplines write is a great opportunity for interdisciplinary writing. Writing Across The Curriculum is an integrated approach to teaching writing across a variety of disciplines that many colleges and universities have implemented. This approach works at the secondary level, too. Working collaboratively with our colleagues to teach writing across disciplines not only benefits our students as they head off for college, but also broadens our own understanding of how different writers write and enhances our own writing instruction. 

A successful writing process requires revision.

One of the consistent surprises students experience in my classes is the transformative power of revision. Of course, those of us who teach writing know this, but I’m always surprised at how infrequently students give themselves time to revise. When we talk about their individual writing approaches, so many students are willing to admit that they wait until the last minute, or near enough to it, that they don’t have time to do much more than a cursory proofread. Still more students can’t differentiate between proofreading and revising, often conflating the two terms with the work of spotting errors.

It’s easy to see how this happens. The demands of the ELA classroom are great, perhaps more so than most subjects. Often there isn’t time to do more than one or two major writing assignments, much less make room for classroom time to do substantive revision. Because of this, students come to college with processes in place that predictably lead to papers being submitted as final when they are actually closer to a rough draft. If surface-level issues are what contribute most to a passing or failing grade, students focus on surface-level issues as the most important part of writing. The work of writing, with ample time to put the draft aside, think about the topic more, return to the draft and reconfigure or even rewrite large sections, simply isn’t there.

Picture of a student writing with a quote about how important it is that we teach the revision process step-by-step.

Each semester I encounter students who can’t revise because they can’t write without attending to all the “rules” of writing as they go. When we write in class, I encourage my students to approach writing as if there were no rules; it’s much easier to apply rules after the bulk of the writing is done and the revision process has begun. I want my students to gain fluency in getting thoughts down on paper, and not composing in their heads such that the mental composition becomes the only draft of a paper they are likely to do. When we write without consideration of the final product, we are free to make choices that honor our writing in ways that worrying about rules often inhibits. 

When we write in class, I encourage my students to approach writing as if there were no rules; it’s much easier to apply rules after the bulk of the writing is done and the revision process has begun. 

Revising is re-visioning. If we teach our students that revising is a critical part of the writing process, and provide those opportunities in class, they will have opportunities to re-vision these drafts and substantively change them. Perhaps they will do so for clarity in meaning. Perhaps they will do so for impact, or to further develop points. Regardless, revision offers opportunities to craft and shape writing into something else, and it’s at this stage that writers can make decisions about what they need to attend to regarding the purpose of the assignment and its expected form. Writing with only the final product in mind shifts student thinking to the assignment and away from learning.

As we progress in our writing, much as we do with any task, we are able to shift some elements to our internal processes. But we can’t do that if we have no idea what those elements look like, so I make sure my students spend time thinking and learning by way of writing. In fact, as Janet Emig (“Writing as a Mode of Learning,”1977) convincingly put it decades ago, writing is a unique form of learning, the benefits of which are profound. Instruction in writing that emphasizes the revision process prepares students to not only write better, but also engage with and learn from the material more effectively. Before students can mature in their writing, it is helpful for them, and instructive for us as teachers, to take them through the revision process step by step.

Writing benefits from personality.

Every semester I assign Linda Christensen’s article “Teaching Standard English: Whose Standard?” to my writing methods students. One critical message that this article conveys is that standards of English are, to a large degree, arbitrary. Standard English is political, in that it conveys the standards of a particular group of people with the effect of elevating it above other forms of spoken and written English. The point of teaching this article is not to blow up teaching Standard English as part of our writing curriculum. Rather, I want my future teachers to consider what “invisible” curricula are also being taught by a strict adherence to “proper” English only. One consequence of this kind of English purity is the stripping out of so much of a student’s personality in writing, because we eliminate the use of “home languages” from any part of the writing process.

picture of a student writing with the text "writing benefits from personality"

As a college student myself, I found that my biggest successes in writing for my college professors came when I “dared” to reveal part of myself through my writing. As a college instructor, I find that I have to almost plead with my students to include some of the passion they have for their topics in the writing itself, giving them specific permission to use the words “I” and “my” in their writing and to use examples from their own experiences to illustrate connections with the larger, academic points. For my methods classes I, like many of my colleagues, do not teach writing per se, so the writing serves as an assessment of their understanding, synthesis of reading materials, and possible applications of what they’ve learned in class. In my teaching, I find that students who stick to the dogmatic “rules” of writing that often form the basis of writing instruction are also the ones who consistently struggle to demonstrate an understanding of the material covered.

I believe that this has a lot to do with my earlier point drawing on Janet Emig’s research on writing as a cognitive process: that writing is a unique form of thought, that the act of making sense of things through writing is uniquely beneficial to students by combining what Jerome Bruner called the enactive, iconic, and representational modes of learning. Writing about a topic but straining to keep the self out of that cognitive process makes no sense; we are not separate from our cognition, so how can we pretend otherwise?

What I wish students were able to do in their writing, and I believe that many of my colleagues would agree, is to write in such a way that we see their personal engagement with the material. By that, I don’t mean that they wax poetically about their feelings toward the course content. I want to see evidence of their own grappling with understanding, that the synthesis they provide is their synthesis, not a regurgitation of points we’ve made together in class, or (heaven forbid) simply my own understanding repackaged for me.

Quote bubble with a quote about how important it is for students to include their personality in their writing.

There will always be situations in which is it inappropriate to use personal pronouns in writing. But I would love for these instances to be the ones where students ask for clarification instead of assuming it is never permissible. I think that this approach to writing, where we teach our students that using or not using personal pronouns, including or excluding our own experiences and understandings, are choices that writers have to make, not inviolable strictures from on high. 

Each student is going to approach a writing task in ways that reflect what they believe about writing. Often, students who choose to attend college have beliefs about writing that aren’t their own. They believe that writing is a rules-based process to follow, rather than a meaning-making process to engage in. Yes, there are conventions that we follow that help provide clarity. Yes, there are expectations that different disciplines have for writing products within the disciplines. We can and should continue to teach about these conventions and expectations, but do so in a way that empowers students rather than limits them, that encourages them to write with abandon before they turn their attention to the strictures of form. This is about as “generic” as we can afford to be as we facilitate our students’ growth in writing. Then, we can help our student writers, whether they are going on to college or not, to understand that as writers we have to make sure we’ve done the leg work necessary to find out what is expected of us by our audience, and then can tailor our writing to fit that purpose. Finally, we have to encourage them to take ownership of their writing, to make choices about writing that reflect what is expected of them in not only form, but also content, and to be unafraid leaving a little bit of themselves in each essay. 

Related Articles and Resources:

5 Ways You Can Bring Self Assessment By Students Into Your Lessons (abetterwaytoteach.com)

Episode 14: Seven Easy Ways to Support Student Writing in Any Content Area | Cult of Pedagogy


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published