What Does Writing Mean to You?

Tutoring can make every writer feel valid and valued when we honor their unique voice.

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By: Alaina Heetderks (’20)
First-Year Tutor

“What does writing mean to you?” 

As I look at the back wall in the Writing Center’s B429 classroom, student responses to this question fill the wall. Each colorful dot demonstrates a unique answer—none being the same. From time to time I find myself reading through the dots, seeing how writing plays a role in others’ lives. 

“Writing is a way to get your message to the world.”

“Writing is making emotion visible.”

“Writing is art with words.”

“Writing is personal.”

While everyone has different ideas regarding what writing means to them, a common theme embodies them all: expression. This expression can be found in every writing assignment, taking on countless forms. Whether it’s the stance on an argument, a proposed solution to a challenge, or an opinion on a subject matter, a writer’s thoughts, values, and identity are displayed through their writing. 

The only way that a writer can truly express themselves is through their authentic, everyday voice. Everyone thinks differently, speaks differently, and reveals themselves differently. It’s only fitting that their writing would, too, be reflective of their individuality found within these differences. There is no “correct” way to format one’s expression—just as there is no “correct” way to create a piece of art. In no case should someone feel as though they have to alter their voice to conform to an “acceptable” mold or standard within writing. It doesn’t matter how something is said—it matters what is said. 

Kanjing He, a writing center tutor at Penn State, defends that the definition of  “good writing needs to take a lot of things into consideration, including good thinking, communication, structure, clarity, purpose, voice and correction.” The sad, yet common, view of  “good writing” is currently confined to a grammatically-perfect structure that is all too limiting of individuality. The type of writing that has been deemed as socially acceptable pressures writers to think in a certain manner, stripping them of their natural voice. What is the message being told to students, who, having poured their all into an assignment, have it returned to see all the ways in which it fell short of the rubric’s set guidelines? Is the way they presented their thoughts wrong just because it isn’t to these standards? Too often do students internalize a grade they get and begin to rethink how they can alter their voice to appease a grader. Kanjing goes on to encourage that both tutors and writers “need to focus on the value of differences, such as bringing in different identities to expand the inclusiveness of the writing center as well as of American academic settings.” I also think this mindset is crucial to have, not just within a writing center, but throughout entire educational systems.

Going back to what students wrote on their dots, it’s easy to see that writing holds varying significance to each individual. Heavy constraints placed on students (from teachers, rubrics, standards, etc.) may result in a loss of their appreciation for any form of writing. If we can’t write in a way that we want, for a reason that we want, writing is no longer a form of self-expression. I was losing my own enthusiasm for writing before I became a writing center tutor, as I had felt for a long time that I was limited in what I could or couldn’t write for an assignment. In my time as a tutor, I’ve seen just how important it is to embrace the uniqueness within each voice, and the rewarding feeling a student gets when they feel heard and validated. In every session I have, one of my main goals is to preserve the student’s voice—and I wish to find others doing the same.

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