This I Believe

Andrew - Pullman
Entered on November 28, 2007

I believe anyone can become a better writer. As a writing instructor at Washington State University, I begin the first day of class, every semester, by sharing this belief with my students. In my opinion, this is a belief anyone who is in the business of writing instruction must cling to. Without it, the teaching of writing is, at best, a bleak activity with little to no hope of improvement or success.

Specifically, I teach introductory composition. We call it English 101 here at Washington State. English 101 is a baseline writing class designed to teach students the ins and outs of academic writing. It’s a difficult class to teach, for two reasons. One, students have to take it, which means many of them enroll grudgingly, against their wills. Two – and this is the reason I’d like to focus on – students tend to believe that writers are born, not made.

This belief – that writers are born, not made – is circulated widely. In my experience, lots of people, especially students, view writing as an elite activity reserved for the “naturally endowed” or the “naturally eloquent.” In other words, if it doesn’t come easy, it’s not for you.

I begin my work in the classroom, then, by telling my students that writing never comes easy. I tell them writers are made, not born, that writing, especially academic writing, is a skill developed through diligence and motivated by hope. “We learn to write by writing,” I tell them, “and practice makes perfect.” Familiar, worn-out, corny-sounding bromides, I realize, but true nonetheless.

A student two semesters back comes to mind. Her name was Margie. Studious and friendly, Margie was a math major who entered my class without a shred of confidence when it came to writing. She liked crunching numbers, not penning sentences. After my customary practice-makes-perfect spiel, she approached me afterwards to express her incredulity. I told her to hope, and to work hard.

Margie did just that, hoped and worked hard; she completed every assignment, sought feedback, revised everything she wrote ad naseum. We celebrated little victories at first, a well-chosen signal verb or a smooth transition phrase. Slowly, her writing started to improve. By mid-semester she was writing cogent paragraphs; by the end of the semester, she turned in an enthusiastic, technically superb research paper on the representation of women in pop culture.

Margie, almost to the point of disbelief, was stunned by the development she had undergone as a writer in a single semester. I was stunned too. The last thing I remember her saying to me was, “I can’t believe it, I love writing.”

The moral? Margies are everywhere. I see fifty of them every semester, students who think they’re not cut out for writing, but through hope and hard work, can become better writers. My belief that anyone can write isn’t a piece of cheap optimism. It’s a little belief with big implications. It’s a belief that keeps me doing what I do.