Jessica Winck, Assistant Director
“Before you read this, I just wanted to say, I’m not a good writer.”
I hear this confession from college students often, from freshmen to graduate students, at this university and others. I wonder where this confession comes from. Maybe we are expecting someone to criticize our writing, so criticisms hurts less if we admit that we’re “bad writers” up front. But mostly, I suspect that the confession comes from specific experiences that have led us to believe that we aren’t good writers. In turn, we probably have diminished confidence and less incentive to engage in opportunities to improve our writing.
I want to put forward the possibility that confidence, as much as any “skill” or strategy in writing, can influence everything from how well we do on a paper to how we feel about ourselves.
One of the benefits of working one-to-one with college students in the University Writing Center is that I get to learn about people’s experiences in education and elsewhere that have defined their views about writing. There are a few confidence-diminishing experiences that college students frequently share with me:
Receiving low grades on papers. Over time, we start to wonder if these grades aren’t telling us something about our ability or even our potential. Grades, as important as they are, offer only one (and sometimes a very small) piece of information about our work as writers. Students might receive a low grade after writing a paper on something that does not interest them, only to receive a higher grade after writing a paper on a topic that interests them very much. We always have the potential to meet expectations, but how we realize that potential can change from situation to situation.
Let’s also be perceptive to the moments when a lower grade is an invitation to revise a paper for a higher grade. Even if you aren’t invited to revise, it can’t hurt to ask your instructor for the opportunity. You might be surprised by what you can accomplish after receiving some advice and revisiting a paper you feel did not go well.
Still smarting from that one thing a teacher once wrote on our paper. Criticisms of our writing, even ones we received a long time ago, can still affect our confidence now. What if we can both take these comments seriously and put them into perspective so that they teach us something instead of close us down? A few things to remember about feedback from teachers:
- College instructors regularly read, grade, and respond to hundreds of papers over a semester. Sometimes harsh-sounding or poorly-worded pieces of feedback result from the need to provide as much feedback to as many students as possible within a certain amount of time. Plus, it can be really difficult as a teacher to communicate in one written comment just how much we really do want to help.
- Is there a substantive takeaway behind the wording of the feedback you receive? For example, the feedback “Jessica, this paper is not where I expected it to be at this point” doesn’t have to mean that I’m not a good writer and can’t meet expectations. Instead, it might tell me something about how I plan the papers I write and whether I understand the challenge behind the assignment. If it’s hard to see the substantive information behind a comment, ask to visit your instructor during his or her office hours so that you can hear more about the feedback.
- But what if the teacher was just being mean? It’s possible, but attempting to read your instructor’s mind will most likely lead you down an unproductive path. Our energy is better spent paying attention to what we can learn from any piece of feedback.
Receiving the same criticisms over and over. Hearing feedback about my comma usage from different instructors might tell me that I don’t know how to use commas and am therefore a bad writer – so why try? Or, I could use this feedback to do some investigating about comma usage. Look over feedback you’ve received in the past. Is there a pattern in these comments? There is a big difference between “being a bad writer” and “not always seeing or remembering that commas typically go after introductory phrases in sentences.” Write down the aspects of your writing that teachers have pointed out. Now you have a checklist. (You’re definitely not a bad writer when you can engage with your own challenges.) Use this list when you write papers for other classes. Also feel free to bring the list to the University Writing Center when you have your next paper to write.
Hearing a lot of criticism and no praise.
Sometimes, in the effort to give constructive feedback, teachers can leave out feedback on what you’ve done really well. If feedback seems disproportionately critical, consider asking your instructors what they think you’ve done well in your writing. You might be surprised by what you hear.
If you carry the belief that you’re just not good at writing, think back to the moments and experiences that have led you to this conclusion, and consider the tips I’ve mentioned for thinking of your own potential as a writer in a different way. I bet you’ll see that your initial conclusion was a hasty one.