From Talk to Text: Why Conferencing Helps Your Writing
Daniel Ernst, Consultant
If someone were to ask me what I do, I’m not really sure what I would say. I could provide nominal answers—I “help students with their writing,” or I “tutor”—but these fail to capture my full experience at the Writing Center. As I think back on all the conferences I’ve had with students, it’s hard to pin down with any precision one thing I can point to and say “that! That’s what I do.” And that’s just how writing is; it’s idiosyncratic, personal, complex, weird, and procedural, and our job as consultants is to meet with students at any stage of this weird process of any type of writing. So this imprecision is expected (and even welcomed).
But, there is at least one thing that happens at every conference: we talk. Now, let’s wax philosophical about this fact. It seems obvious and like sort of a letdown, right? “Of course you talk; it’s a conference.” However, I am increasingly convinced that this action of “talking about assignments” cannot be emphasized enough. And as I think back on my conferences, it becomes clear that meeting one-on-one with students to “talk” about assignments it not simply one of many components of consulting on writing; rather, the one-on-one talk is the realm in which all the other components of writing instruction take place. Conversation is the medium, the form, through which any kind of instruction or advice or conference works. So what? What does all this mean? To make it more concrete, here are three reasons why I think talking about your writing is hugely beneficial:
- It will clean your intellectual house. Assignments are hard. Not only are they designed to prompt a synthesis of your knowledge on a subject, but also they sometimes contain confusing vocabulary. For instance, what does it mean to analyze, compare and contrast, or construct an argumentative, thesis-driven analysis? After all, these things don’t always mean the same thing to everyone. One of the best things to do when facing a complex writing prompt is to spitball, to just talk and think out loud, and it’s especially helpful when you do it with someone else. An audience, even one consisting of a single writing consultant, can provide valuable feedback or counter points to help hone your ideas. You can talk out those minor issues like “what does a reflective paper do?” and move onto seriously crafting your ideas.
- You’ll use language in new ways. It’s easy to forget that writing is just one type of language use—we also talk and think using language. Each medium—speech, writing, and thought—uses language in special, conventionalized ways. But I would argue that, of the three, writing depends the most on the other two. Obviously, we must engage in critical and intense thought when writing, but we should also talk about these thoughts both before and during the writing process. Have you ever tried to explain something orally that you have written? Undoubtedly you changed the language in some way, and that’s because the two media operate differently within language. Encountering multiple language mechanisms is instructive; it will allow you to see your topic from new perspectives and challenge you to write more clearly and effectively.
- Your ideas get a test run. I don’t know about you, but my ideas always sound a lot better in my head than when I voice them or write them down. Talking through your ideas with a consultant gives you the chance for a dry run with an audience. The sharing of ideas is my favorite part
of the job, but it also reflects important and foundational academic principles. Sharing, debating, and challenging ideas and knowledge is truly what education is about. Talking through your ideas with someone will automatically make you not only a stronger writer but also a stronger thinker.
So, for your next assignment, come to the Writing Center and let’s talk.