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Part 3 From Reading to Writing

11 From Reading to Writing

From Christopher Manning:

When I started college, I was a decent student in the sciences, an admittedly weak math student, a solid student in languages, and a self-described genius in writing. I had won local writing contests, creative writing awards, and a handful of small plaques describing me as the “English Student of the Year” in my class.

I had writing skills. Serious writing skills. However, when I enrolled in college classes, I was stuck taking Composition I one just like every student. I was lucky enough to enroll in a section taught by a professor who would be vitally important in my future at the small, liberal arts college I attended. He was fair, extraordinarily intelligent, and genuinely decent. However, after he returned my first essay, I was sure he knew absolutely nothing about good writing. The essay was soaked with red ink, and there were comments repeatedly critiquing structure, focus, and clarity, but I did not understand what these comments meant I had to do differently.

When I cornered a friend who lived across the hall from me about why I my professor gave me so many comments, he offered to look at the essay. “Dude,” he said, “this is kind of a mess. I’m not sure what your point is. And it’s really complicated. Make a point and support it. This gets a little crazy.”

It was then that I decided the guy across the hall was clueless about good writing, too. So, I asked a friend who was planning to major in English and was also enrolled in my class. Her response? “It’s okay, I guess. What’s it supposed to be about?” Why, I wondered, were there so many freshman who just didn’t understand good writing?

Finally, I asked someone I knew would truly appreciate my enormous ability as a writer. Their evaluation? “Stop worrying about the grade, and start focusing on the process,” they decided after reading through the essay. “Writing is about writing well, not about getting the right answer. Think about what your professor expects from you as a writer, and then give them what they want.”

It was not the advice I wanted, but it was the advice I definitely needed to hear. For years I had been rewarded but never challenged. College writing required discipline and focus that were not needed in my high school English classes. Over my final year of high school, I thus had abandoned writing basics. I did not complete the reading and research needed to inform myself on the topic, and my citations were sloppy. I needed a proofreader. Most importantly, I realized I struggled to focus solely on my topic, and I too often tried to write about too many other subjects.

These were difficult lessons, but they were too important not to learn.


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Expression and Inquiry by Christopher Manning; Sally Pierce; and Melissa Lucken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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