July 17th, 2009

Good Writing Skills Matter in Every Course, Not Just English Composition

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At the end of English composition, I ask students how what they’ve just learned in my class might be useful in their other classes. They’re often bemused and surprised to learn that professors in other courses care about their writing. To encourage them to take responsibility for succeeding in their future writing assignments, I hand out a list of 20 questions that they might ask to better understand “what the professor wants,” and thus continue to apply what we’ve been practicing.

I’m sharing this list in the hopes that it will help you help students transfer good writing skills from English composition to your class. By answering these questions about your own writing assignments, you may cue students to write better by building on some learning principles common to first-year composition classes.

Questions students could ask a professor about getting started with a writing assignment:

  1. If I have my own idea for a topic or angle that’s interesting to me, can I use it, or do I need to complete the assignment exactly the way it is described?
  2. Is there an assignment model, a sample essay, or a kind of published writing that I could look at to help me better see how to do this assignment?
  3. If I write an essay draft early, can I come see you to talk about it or email you to ask a few questions?

Questions about the assignment’s main purpose:

  1. Why do people in this field write or read a text like this? What’s the main goal for this kind of writing?
  2. Should I mostly review the similarities, differences, events, theories, or key features? Or should I make arguments, draw conclusions, or give my interpretations about these ideas? Do I need to answer the question “So what?”
  3. Should I broadly survey the field or issue, or should I narrow my focus and “go deep” with my analysis?

One final, crucial thing you can do that will help students draw on what they’ve learned in classes like mine is to get them working on the assignment before it’s due. Require them to write something—a proposal, a thesis statement, an introductory paragraph, a rant, an outline, a bibliography—at least a week or two before the due date. Even if you provide no in-depth feedback at that point, you’ve indicated that you know the fundamental principle of good writing in English courses and beyond: it requires good revising, and thus takes more time and attention than we initially think.

Dr. E. Shelley Reid, is an assistant professor and director of composition in the English department at George Mason University.

Excerpted from 20 Questions about Writing Assignments, The Teaching Professor, August -September, 2008. To see the complete article, download a copy of our free report Keys to Designing Effective Writing and Research Assignments.