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Pretty Good and Really Good Writers...There's a Difference

Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009

Most SCU students are pretty good writers; you wouldn't be here if you weren't. The difference between a pretty good writer and a really good writer isn't so much a matter of rhetorical skill or even of audience awareness. Really good writers are conscious writers, aware of the relationship between what they write and the intent of the task and the target audience. And really good writers seek out writing partners, other really good writers who can provide an objective perspective, something that's nearly impossible to do for oneself.

While we may put words to paper alone, writing is rarely a solitary endeavor. From reading a paragraph to a friend to make sure it sounds "right" to proofing a paper to make sure it's correct, writing is easier - more effective, more efficient - with a partner, a second set of eyes that can see what we can't.

Really good writers will begin working with a writing partner before they begin to write. Really good students will bring their assignment to the writing center to make sure they understand what an assignment is designed to demonstrate generally and to make sure they understand precisely what their instructor wants. HUB "partners" are trained in explicating writing assignments. "Explain the causes and consequences of the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII." differs from "Describe the causes and consequences of the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII." To explain is to make an issue clear, to give reasons, while to describe is to give an account of. To explain requires analysis, to articulate how or why. To describe is more factual, "what" without necessarily any "why." Consequently, a student might write a beautiful description of the facts related to the internment but, without discussing its reasons, the student has failed to demonstrate the level of understanding the instructor expects.

Really good writers will clearly identify what a writing task is designed to accomplish, often going so far as to stick a Post-it on their monitor to keep them focused on the contextual focus of the assignment, which is what I do. Usually, writing tasks have primary and secondary intents, sometimes even tertiary. For example, the primary intent of this blog is to explain the benefits of working with a writing partner and the ways in which the Hub, truly, makes better paper at a time. The secondary intent is to generally describe the relationship between the writing process and working with writing partners. The tertiary intent of this blog generally is simply for me, as the first director of SCU's first writing center, to let you know what we do, what we're going to do...want to do, and to give you a sense of who we are.

Located on the left side of Varsi Hall, across from the observatory, in room 145, the HUB is open during the academic year, Sunday through Thursday, from 3 until 11 pm. You don't need to make an appointment, for there are always at least three writing partners available to work with you.

At your first meeting, your HUB partner will carefully review your assignment, making sure you know exactly what your essay is to accomplish. For example, a careful explication of "Explain the causes and consequences of the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII." revealed an important part of the assignment: causes and consequences, more than one cause, more than one consequence. An essay explaining the primary cause and consequence of the internment would be incomplete, regardless of how well written.

Pretty good writers know how to write, more or less, and know how to take into account the needs and expectations of their audience...more or less. Understanding your audience is important in classes where assignments identify a target reader, such as when you're asked to argue a position to readers who either disagree with you or who have not formed positions of their own. However, particularly in academic environments, intent is generally more important than audience and should be the controlling variable by which really good writers craft an assignment.

To demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of course content are the primary intents of college essays. Generally (and somewhat simplistically), in composition classes, the primary intent of an essay is to demonstrate your rhetorical knowledge, while in political science, engineering, business, religious studies, psychology classes, the primary intent of an essay is to demonstrate your contextual understanding. Audience may or may not be an issue intent always is. For example, when asked to explain the causes and consequences of the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, the audience is the history instructor who made the assignment. How she feels about the internment isn't an issue. Your job is to write an essay that shows your understanding of the causes and the consequences...not if you think the internment was good or bad, not so much how anyone "feels" about this event in American history, not necessarily to argue one position over another. Your instructor knows the causes and consequences of the internment; your job is to show her that you do as well.

After content, what you write, an essay's structure and organization are most important. How we arrange our ideas greatly determines how these ideas are received. HUB partners are trained to show you different kinds of organizational options as they relate to the intent of the assignment and its target audience. Often, academic essays begin with a general summary of what will follow, which is more than a simple thesis statement. Some academic essays are structured by an enthymeme: your position followed by a "because" clause, which usually doesn't appear in your essay but provides its structural framework. Your writing partner can help you determine how to structure your essay and how different organizational strategies can achieve different effects.

Really good writers rarely write an essay the night before an assignment is due. Really good writers understand writing is a three-part process of planning, writing, and revising.

After meeting with your writing partner to identify the intent of an assignment and again to explore your organizational options, a third meeting can help you revise and edit your final draft.

Because your partner understands the intent of the assignment itself and your intent by the organizational choices you've made, he (or she) can effectively evaluate how well both intents have been achieved. HUB partners are trained to show you how effective (or not) your supporting ideas and examples are, how effective (or not) your sentence style is, and how effective (or not) your diction is. Writers are usually simply too close to what they've written to objectively do this kind of evaluation. HUB partners can.

Mechanics errors--errors in grammar, usage, capitalization, punctuation, spelling--seriously disrupt your content and leave your audience, your instructor, wondering if you're ignorant or sloppy...Much of the time, such errors are more a consequence of time than a lack of understanding. It's almost impossible to catch our own errors. HUB partners are not proofreaders; however, they are proofing-partners.HUB partners are trained to help you identify and correct mechanics errors. They may say there's an error in a sentence and see if you can find it, which you often can, simply by focusing on a single sentence. But sometimes, a sentence may appear to be perfectly correct; you don't see the error. In this case, your HUB partner can identify the error and explain how to correct it. If you make the same error time and again, your HUB partner can teach you what the correct form is and why.

HUB writing partners are really good writers. Some are English majors while others are majoring in math, business, and engineering. What they all have in common is not just their experience as writers but their understanding of the writing process and how to share their experience and understanding with others.

The HUB helps make pretty good writers really good writers…one paper at a time.

Until next time,
Dolores laGuardia, Director
HUB Writing Center

Santa Clara University | HUB Writing Center
Benson Memorial Center - Lower Level, Room 022
500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, California 95053