What Makes a Writer “Good”?
Are good writers born, or are they made? Could it be that there is something in between? Who has the capacity to be a good writer? These are all questions that were raised for me after this week’s reading. For instance, perhaps “good” writers are simply better at picking up on the nuances of circumstance and using those nuances to rhetoricize soundly. But perhaps these “good” writers have the affinity that they do because of the ways in which they have been taught. Perhaps writing, like everything else, must be taught in different ways to different people, and that there is no “right” way to teach it.
As someone who does both History and Computer Science, I have friends on both sides of this aisle. I know some students who can write a three-page paper in an hour, but shudder at the idea of doing math problems, and vice-versa. I am in a unique situation because the older I get, the more I realize that I am not better at history than I am at Comp Sci: that notion, which I have carried with me for a while, comes from the fact that I spent the past few years believing that I was inclined toward the humanities and therefore bad at STEM. Realizing that I am not worse at STEM has been a gradual but uplifting experience. This article prompted me to reach out to some of my STEM friends and ask questions like “Are you bad at writing just because you think you are?” with follow-ups like “Do you think you have been taught writing in a way that works for you?”. They each responded to the latter question with a resounding “no”. I think this is interesting in regard to the debate between traditionalists and composition specialists. Maybe in this particular debate, no one side is better than the other, because each works in different, and more or less effective, ways for different students. A student who has been told his whole life that boys should focus on STEM fields cannot be taught to write the same way that the girl who has a passion for literature should be.
When reading about threshold concepts, we were reminded that writing is impacted by prior experiences. Therefore, through these writing experiences, we develop our own sort of both writer and reader identity. This is why I could read the same poem as a friend and get an entirely different meaning out of it: every time we scan a line of text, every time we pick up a pencil, we bring these identities to the table. We are soon brought to the concept of “genres”, which to me sounded an awful lot like fitting the mold. In practice, these genres have proven to be helpful in narrowing down the field, but we should not force anyone, especially students who are so diverse in the ways in which they learn and who can be so easily deterred from the subject of writing, to remain within these neat little boxes because someone, somewhere decided that his was the best way of doing it. For instance, an unusual job application is not punished because it is less effective. More often, it is punished because it strays from what we believe the standard to be.
The “best way to do things” is not always decided arbitrarily, but we should remember that sometimes, something different can be equally as effective as “the best”. As Sonja Doss says in her Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, “A genre is not formulaic, there is always another strategy that a rhetor can use to meet the requirements of the situation.”
While we are at it, can we stop forcing kids to learn the more definite English concepts, like grammar via boring lectures and rote memorization? Kids do not like these things. I loved English, but not sophomore year when I was given grammar lesson after grammar lesson that I did not understand. My teacher called herself the “grammar guru” and loved grammar. I remember appreciating her enthusiasm, but I really did not understand it; I guess that is part of my identity as a reader and a writer. If we can foster a genuine love for writing from kids by teaching them in ways that really work for them, then maybe they will stop giving us pieces of writing that are “pseudo-transactional”, and give us pieces they are actually passionate about and actually convey something meaningful.
Finally, let us also make sure that our students do not lose themselves in their writing. The most frustrating moment in my sophomore year of college so far was when I realized I no longer had a voice: I have been writing historical pieces for so long that I do not remember what it was like to weave a piece of myself into my writing. This is because my history teachers want something different than my English teachers do, and I quickly found myself lost, not understanding why I was getting conflicting messages from different teachers, and just trying to meet expectations– talk about pseudo-transactional. Now that I am cognizant of the fact that my writing has stopped representing me, I am going to try my best to turn that around. My senior year of high school, I wrote that I was “ashamed to admit I no longer wrote the way I used to” because I no longer wrote for me. Two years later, I think it might be time to turn that around.