4 Good Writing Classes Should Teach Context

Ashley Bacchus

It’s your first year at Kean University. Your writing composition professor is more serious than your high school English teacher and twice as strict. Deadlines are not flexible and you’re struggling to find the “correct” way to write a good academic essay. You thought you knew everything there was to know when it came to writing. You have an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion.  But you get your work back and your grade is subpar. What did you miss? Honestly, K-12 doesn’t prepare students for the kind of writing expected in a normal college setting. Early writing composition is more likely to teach correctness of grammar and structure, putting pressure on perfection of syntax and spelling. Which makes sense at first: making sure students write the “correct” way should be the right way to learn. Unfortunately, the world outside of high school doesn’t work that way. In progressive society that often meshes social and political issues into the curriculum, learning how to argue your point to an audience gets you way further than using big words and perfecting sentence structure. In fact, the emphasis on getting an essay “right” turns students off to writing altogether. It’s no wonder that many students procrastinate until the very last minute. Some turn to plagiarism simply because they don’t believe in their own ability. Some student’s parents write their essays for them. Pressure on correctness discourages students from the parts of writing that are exciting and the parts of learning that can only be absorbed from experience.

This is not to say that grammar and syntax are unimportant. In fact, a good argument that fails in coherency and flow can cause the reader to stop altogether. Imagine you are that professor, after reading through about thirty other essays, come across a piece of writing that isn’t even legible. The point is lost, argument overshadowed by unending fragments and misspelled words. An instant F. Now imagine you receive a piece of writing that doesn’t have a main purpose but is written fluently. It’s an okay essay but misses the point completely. The truth is one cannot exist without the other. The problem with focusing too much on if an essay is grammatically correct is that you’re putting your attention on something that is done in the revision stage. There are ways to break this cycle of over emphasizing the “right” way to write. First, recognizing that writing takes many shapes and sizes may be able to eliminate some of the pressure associated with making sure an essay appears to be the way a professor expects. Additionally, paying attention to how you are writing and to whom will help provide context for the voice and argument. With these tools at hand, the struggle to write a good academic essay will be a thing of the past.

Forget About Structure

One of my biggest problems during college has been procrastination. That’s the problem with teaching correctness. It stresses so much that if you don’t follow the rubric and include exactly what the directions are instructing, you won’t receive a good grade. Sometimes I couldn’t even look at an assignment for days because the concept behind articulating a well written essay was intimidating. What I learned over the years is that writing an essay is only as difficult as you make it. The hardest part is getting started. When you take away the concept behind correctness and perfect grammar, you are given the opportunity to write what is called, “a shitty first draft.” This is when you just dump all your ideas onto a piece of paper or into your laptop. If it helps, draw pictures or web diagram. It’s probably not going to look pretty at first. It will have spelling mistakes. There will be run on sentences. Fragments. Some sentences may not even make sense. The concept behind this is about intention. The intention to get your work onto the page. The intention to create something that displays your ideas. And your ideas don’t need to be flawlessly rounded. When you take the opportunity to get something down on the page, you eliminate procrastination, which often comes from wanting to get something right the first time. You don’t have to be perfect, though. Starting the process of writing gets the wheels in your head turning, introducing new ideas you didn’t know you had.

Once you’ve completed a horrible first draft, your job is to go back and edit. And edit. And edit. Keep revising until you have that eloquent text that your teacher would be proud to read. This is the moment when grammar and syntax come into play: after your essay is essentially complete. Check your essay for spelling mistakes and run on sentences. Consider hypotaxis – short sentences that pack a punch – and parataxis – long, descriptive sentences. Swap out repeated words for a more advanced vocabulary. The other side of the coin – the correctness, or rather, the final product after the revision of your writing – will be represented here.

Know. Your. Audience.

Something early composition is desperately lacking is the identification of a specific audience and making sure your writing is tailored towards that audience. This will affect what kind of research is done to the organization of your essay to the actual verbiage you use while writing. You’ll find that even a text message, which doesn’t follow the normal structure of an essay, can be considered writing. A shopping list. An email. It’s all about who is receiving this piece of information. Learning how to focus on a certain audience can also influence students to advocate for their own ideas. Imagine high school students were given assignments asking them to decide what their prom theme would be or what they think should be served in the cafeteria. When you give a student an assignment that incites them to choose a side, it urges them to fight for the things they believe in. They can also find out where their individual biases lie, and research based on such a topic could be an opportunity to identify their own biases. It can be a chance to help them find their voice. Their values. The rhetoric of using language for a desired goal is an invaluable tool that is something you take with you when you move on into real life.

Writing composition is about more than just figuring out the correct way to write. Although grammar and syntax are important, they are not the true elements of what can teach a freshman college student to write a good academic essay. When you put aside the normal requirements for structure and correctness, the limitations for writing and free thought are broken. Instead, focusing on the audience and context of your writing will function as a guideline for how you essay will flow and give you an opportunity to learn how to defend your opinions and values.

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Good Ideas About Writing by Ashley Bacchus is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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