Lessons from the Other Side:
Learning to Write through Writing Education
by Savannah Jensen
I came into college being told I was a good writer—not that I could tell you what that meant at the time. But I could close read and write a literature analysis paper that pleased teachers and passed standardized tests. In many ways this definition of good writing became a part of my identity and was one of the major reasons that I became an English major.
But in all honesty, it wasn’t until I had to start teaching other people about writing that I even began to understand what I thought good writing was. I had just turned 22 when I graduated with a BA in English. I didn’t really feel like I knew what I wanted to do after college, so based on advice from a professor, I stayed at the same university and became an MA student in English. In that program, I worked my first year at the Writing Center and taught first-year composition the year after that.
When I began the program, I wasn’t worried about going into either position. I was a good writer after all. It wasn’t until I actually started working that I began to realize how narrow my definition of good writing had been.
I remember the first writing center session I ever did. The client needed help with citing in Chicago. I had only ever used MLA, and I had never heard of Chicago before. I had no idea what I was doing. Sitting next to the student, frantically flipping through the pages of the ginormous Chicago Manual of Style while trying to figure out the basics so that I could teach them was one of the most stressful 30 minutes of my life. I was supposed to be the expert in this situation, and I was learning on the fly. It didn’t feel like a great start. I didn’t know as much about writing as I thought I did.
While my first experience was stressful, learning with students became one of the benefits of working at the Writing Center. I realized that I didn’t need to know every little detail about the Chicago Manuel of Style or how to write a personal statement or a lab report. If I could figure out how to find information about best practices, I could show students where to go when they got stuck; then we could learn together and apply it to their writing. “We just read over this handout. Hey look, you’re already doing some of these things! What are places we can use this handout to revise?” Once I realized I didn’t have to know it all, I began to enjoy learning with and from the students I tutored.
To be honest, I probably learned more about writing from the Writing Center than anywhere else. I got to see all kinds of assignments. I learned that the conventions of a literary analysis paper, which I assumed were used across all disciplines, weren’t as widespread as I thought. I still remember feeling somewhat scandalized when a history major student told me that in her history papers she never quoted sources: “We only use quotes when it’s something we don’t want to say ourselves.” Even though in theory I knew that not all writing was the same and that there were different genres and conventions, it was only through working in the Writing Center, and helping students meet their writing goals, that what I knew in theory became practice.
When I started teaching, I faced new challenges. While English and Composition studies are closely linked, they’re very different disciplines. I had tested out of composition classes when I was a first-year student. I had never taken a composition class. And in some ways, I felt like I was being thrown into a situation where I felt like I should know what I was doing, but I didn’t. As I prepared my syllabus for the fall semester, I was learning a lot of the basics of writing: organization, topic sentences, where commas actually go. As I was coming up with assignments and making rubrics, I finally had to ask myself what did I mean by good writing? What did it look like? Would it look the same for every paper? For every writer? When I made my rubrics, it felt like a grand experiment. Were the things that I thought made good writing really that?
Over time, my thoughts on what makes good writing have changed. When I first started teaching, my views were rigid. I thought that teaching students to write well just meant having them create a piece of writing that looked like all the sample essays I had seen in composition textbooks. But over time, I realized that wasn’t what I thought good writing or being a good writer meant. Today, I see good writing as self-aware writing. It’s writing that allows the author to express their thoughts. It’s writing that’s thought of how it can use genre and medium to impact a particular audience. Good writing is much more about the process than the product and doesn’t have to look like what’s in a textbook.
If I hadn’t been a position to try to teach writing to others, my view of writing would likely still be the same as when I first entered college. I was a good writer because everyone told me so. Now, I think things aren’t that simple, but I’m a better writer for it, and I finally know what I mean by a better writer.
Savannah Jensen is a PhD student in the English Department at the University of Georgia. Currently, she serves as an instructor of record for first year writing classes and as a consultant at the UGA Writing Center. Her research focuses on Renaissance literature with a particular interest in the representation of ghosts and how they haunt political and social life. She received her BA and MA from Florida Gulf Coast University.