UNF Writes Initiative
UNF WRITES — AN INTRODUCTION TO WRITING WELL
A. Samuel Kimball
Professor of English, Department of English
Associate Dean, College of Arts and Sciences
Are You a Strong Writer?
How do you know whether or not you are a good writer? Here are three answers.
The Simple Answer. Someone tells you that you write well.
If you are a student, you know you write well when your high school teacher or college instructor tells you that you do. If you are submitting your work to an agent, the agent agrees to represent you and your work . If you are submitting your work directly to a publisher without the intermediary of an agent, one of the publisher’s editors provides a reader’s report and explains what is good about the writing. The simple answer to the question, “How do you know whether or not you are a good writer,” is that you get the kind of feedback that indicates that others want to read what you have written because they like what you have to say and how you say it—perhaps even enough to pay you for your words.
A More Complex Answer. Someone tells you where and how your writing is and is not strong and what makes it so.
Someone shows you what is wrong with the way you write or where it is not as strong as it might be; this person explains how you can fix, strengthen, improve, or otherwise advance your writing to the next level of compositional expertise; and you understand the advice well enough to act on it . . . successfully. In other words, someone explains certain general guidelines for writing well, and you follow these guidelines. Over time, as you practice revising your work you come to understand on your own when something is not quite right and needs to be changed. In addition, you learn more and more advanced guidelines, and not only how to act on them but also when to depart from them—because, for example, they do not fit a particular situation.
A Still More Complex Answer. You have developed such proficiency that you are the someone.
You have become so adept that you are the someone who can tell at a glance what is or is not strong about the writing at hand; you are the someone who knows exactly how to edit and revise it; and you are the someone who can explain yourself in a manner that the other person can follow and act on. In other words, you are someone who can explain how strong writers talk to themselves about their own writing and the many different decisions that they make as they write, rewrite, and rewrite yet again.
The UNF Writes Rubrics and the Self-Talk of Writing Experts
Experts recognize at a glance what is right and what is not right about a situation that falls under their expertise. I once was present when a swimming coach blew her whistle after watching a student swim not more than about ten yards (two, maybe three strokes); for the next five minutes—a full five minutes—she then proceeded to describe and analyze what her pupil did and how he could correct just about everything he was doing with his body—the degree to which he rotated his shoulders and hips, the timing with which he began the rotation, how far and at what angles he extended each of his arms and what kind of arc he traced, how he aimed and angled each hand into the water and how ahead of and off the center of his skull, how he rotated his neck more than he needed and brought his head and mouth higher than necessary out of the water when he took a breath, and so on. When I first saw the student swimming, I had an impression that there were things that he could do to improve. However, I had no idea that the coach would be able to explain at such length and in such precise and technical detail the number and precise kinds of changes her pupil needed to make in the way he was moving his body. I had no idea of how complex a highly efficient swimming stroke was and what it would take to integrate the micro-movements of the body to produce a maximally powerful swimming stroke.
Expert writers need to read only a couple of paragraphs, perhaps even just a few sentences, in order to know exactly what is going on in a student’s writing.
What do they look for? They look for the writer’s awareness of and deftness at controlling the many, many different components that go into writing proficiently. Most people are familiar with some of these components—word choice, grammatical correctness, the purpose of the writing, the intended audience, and so on. Very few people have a knowledge of the hundreds of other stylistic elements that could be named.
What is more, very few people can define some of the most basic terms. Everyone knows that good writing is clear and coherent. But what do these concepts imply for how one should go about deciding what words to use, what grammatical constructions to employ, or how to put sentences together into the best possible sequence? Very few people can explain what someone needs to do in order to write clearly and coherently. People affirm the value of clarity and coherence; however, they have a difficult time explaining, except in impressionistic terms, what makes clear writing clear or coherent writing coherent. The compliment, “That’s really clearly written,” is about as useful to an aspiring writer as the statement, “That’s a strong swimming stroke,” is to an athlete who hopes to compete successfully against other strong swimmers. In order to improve at a sport, an athlete needs to know exactly what to do differently. In order to write well, a person needs to know what clarity and coherence entail; they need to know how to achieve clarity and coherence; they need to know how to talk to themselves about their writing in a manner that will enable them to recognize when they have written clearly and coherently and when they have not.
We have devised the UNF Writes Self-Talk© rubrics to help students do just that—talk to themselves in something like the way expert writers do. To this end, we have written the rubrics in the form of statements that, with some practice, anyone can use to determine at what level of sophistication they have mastered one or another component of their writing.
When students do not learn how to talk to themselves in something of the way that professional educators do when they read student work, then they will be at the mercy of their teachers’ judgments, judgments they will find difficult to understand. Faculty make professional judgments about student work. That is their job. If students want to achieve the compositional skills that their instructors have and that lead them to their judgments about student work, then students need to know how to make an accurate assessment of the level of expertise they have or have not achieved with regard to specific features of their writing.