Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Doing what works--works

Some unseen force in the textbook-writing industry decrees that every writing text must include some variation on this statement: You have to find the method that works for you. I immediately want to dial up Captain Obvious to report a cop-out, but then I recall that I gave that same advice to one of my own students just last week. It's true--you do have to find the method that works for you--but the problem arises in how we understand that word works.

Context matters. The method that enables E.L. James to write Fifty Shades of Gray will not necessarily serve the student attempting to write a research paper for a first-year composition class, and telling certain lazy students do what works for you sounds like permission to do nothing--or to plagiarize. (Which, lest we forget, helps students develop the time management skills that they need to succeed in the world of work.)

First-year writers in composition class need to find the method that works to demonstrate mastery of certain conventions of academic writing. A student comfortable with sub-par performance might smile and say "It works for me!" But it may not work to produce the desired grade. 

Upper-level classes are different. With first-year writers, I tend to issue directives: you must put the parentheses here; you must properly integrate and punctuate quotations from sources; your thesis statement should follow one of these helpful models. Advanced writers get gentle nudges: try this clause at the beginning of the sentence and see how it changes the emphasis; consider more vivid verbs here and see how they impact meaning and rhythm; have you thought about switching these two points around? Give it a try and see what works. It's like the difference between giving a preschooler a coloring book (Color inside the lines!) and giving an older child a blank canvas and a bunch of paint.

Do what works for you works best for writers who know enough about writing to know what works best. In that way, it's like much writing advice: most useful for those who don't need it.


Rebecca said...

Thanks for this post, Bev. I am dealing with some first-semester students who have asked me to start their thesis statements for them and then let them fill in the rest. (That just feels WAY too directive.)

JaneB said...

Helping people write better is such a subtle art... it's always interesting.

The best advice I got was to read good writing in the style I needed to use, and to match what I was reading to what I most needed to write - and I do feel like one of the biggest things my students lack is a background of reading, a familiarity with the different ways written words can affect them and can convey information - it's as if they have very little idea what they are trying to do, have paint and a canvas but have never seen a picture...

Contingent Cassandra said...

I give this advice myself, but in much more limited form -- e.g. I don't care exactly what process they use to get from published page to their own written page (notes in between, post-its or the digital equivalent bristling from piles of sources from which they write directly, something in between) as long as the plagiarism detection software (to which we have carefully uploaded their sources) and an in-class visual comparison by actual human beings shows that they have managed to accurately indicate which words and ideas are their own, and which came from a source (and which one).

I suspect the more general "whatever works" advice is part of the ongoing revolt against prescriptive writing methods (e.g. you must create an outline first), but perhaps that revolt has been successful, and we now need to consider the possibility that, a la the French revolution, it might go (or have gone) a bit too far?

Bev said...

Great comments--and I definitely see students who act as if they've never seen good writing before and therefore have no idea what it looks like when writing "works." This is a problem. I don't know the solution.