Blog

“Good Writing:” An Unfair Standard

When “good writing” is based on a single standard, many students can’t find success and have their voices undervalued in school.

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By: Madeleine Van Delden (’20)
Second-Year Tutor + Writing Center Co-President

Being a senior writing center tutor, I like to look back and reflect on the practices of my teachers. In my classrooms, the phrase, “good writing” was thrown around when discussing grammar, punctuation, and structure. More often than not, we would practice editing each others writing with bright markers, cutting out and adding in as we saw fit. Some of my peers hated writing, and I can see why. The feeling of your writing being thrown away in front of you can be compared to hopelessness. Instead of fostering the ideas already on the page, they are replaced with what “should be said.” This has shifted writing away from its intended purpose and causes young students to fall out of love with the subject. 

When English classes start to revolve around only one type of writing, students will start to achieve this standard, a standard that is constantly changing based on the classroom and teacher. Writing with a sense of purpose and thinking outside of the box are no longer welcome in these focused classroom environments. If there is only one type of writing and therefore a single way of thought, the point of my writing becomes mute. Carmen Kynard summarizes this problem in “New Life in this Dormant Creature,” by stating, “we never ask the questions: what the hell students writin? for whom?” When teachers are unable to understand the significance of the writing piece and the context the student is writing in, the barrier between the two becomes worse. 

Once, a student came into the writing center and shoved their laptop to my side of the table. As they took a seat, they let out a deep sigh and asked me to “fix everything.” I took note of their indifference towards the paper and asked them to describe what they would like to work on in the session. But as I placed the laptop between us, I noticed all of the long comments and highlights throughout the page. It was clear that the comments made were not done by the student sitting next to me, but their teacher and peers. I could see the defeat the student must have taken after the correction process and explained to them that isn’t the Writing Center’s goal. Once we got over that barrier, the session changed into something more positive with the student reading allowed their own work and adding in what they felt was needed. The paper changed from something that was clearly written for a teacher into something the student wrote for themselves. 

Both problems (an unfair writing standard and students developing hate for writing) will be difficult to change in a short amount of time across a high school or middle school. The issue is not just manifested within one teacher, but a multitude of teachers over the years of a students education. However, educators can start by using a growth mindset, for themselves and their students, to promote a healthy attitude towards writing. Carmen Kynard reminds us of the systemic pressures children in education are facing and the unfair ways students are expected to write. Students are no longer taking ownership for their papers because they believe what they’ve written doesn’t truly belong to them. As tutors, it is our job to celebrate all writing and all writers.

The Importance of Unhurried Writing

Student writing is often a rush to meet an end goal, but getting writers to slow down through the process can have surprising benefits.

By: Alison MacGillivray (’20)
First-Year Tutor

Occasionally, I have a student come into the writing center, antsy to finally finish their paper and move on. It often confuses these students when, rather than jumping into a stream of corrections and criticisms, I ask questions like: “What is the main idea of this piece?” and “What are you trying to say?”

Students are so wrapped up in the end product that they rush their writing in order to be finished. This rush is the root cause of many problems, such as a limited argument or a string of inconsistencies. In the writing center, we work to encourage taking it back a couple of steps, all the way back to the main idea. Writers who rush find themselves losing grasp of the main idea in their work, as they veer far off topic and don’t allot themselves the time to go back and revise that.

When a student brings an essay into a writing center session, I like to work through each separate paragraph with them. This allows us to encounter every “I don’t know what to say” statement with a plan. As the student finds themselves stuck, I ask the question, “what is the main purpose of this paragraph?” A student often produces the answer that they had been looking for as they walk me through the meaning of their writing.

As Emily L. Loney says in her article, “Revision Takes Time: Teaching Inefficiency in the Writing Center,” moments of pure brainstorming and conversation, though seemingly counterproductive, often produce further development in a piece of writing than simply reading it and pointing out flaws. This open conversation allows a student to create their own original ideas, then use the help of the tutor to put those ideas onto paper. Furthermore, the discussion aids in the fundamental relationship between tutor and student.

When faced with a difficult assignment or prompt, students are so overwhelmed with the complexity of the project that they take hold of the first idea that they have. But as Brad Hughes highlights in his article “Starting a Slow-Writing Movement,” finding the answer to a difficult problem does not come easily, and students should not expect it to. Acceptance of this reality allows the student to open themselves up to the idea of taking their time.

In order to take full advantage of this idea, students need to prepare for a long writing process. Saving all of their questions and concerns for a single tutoring session right before the due date does not provide ample time for this method. The idea of slow writing should not be confused with procrastination. Both are done over a period of time, but slow writing is consistently practiced over this time, while procrastination waits until the last moment to do the work. A student really motivated towards this style of writing should consider visiting the writing center multiple times over a few weeks. Skyline’s writing center tutors adapt their tutoring skills to each individual student, understanding that everyone has different methods of writing. For some students, this slow-writing movement drives them crazy, but for others, this is what they have been searching for.

Works Cited

Hughes, Brad. “Starting a Slow-Writing Movement.” Another Word, 24 Jan. 2011, dept.writing.wisc.edu/blog/revision-takes-time-teaching-inefficiency-in-the-writing-center/.

Loney, Emily L. “Revision Takes Time: Teaching Inefficiency in the Writing Center.” Another Word, 12 Mar. 2018, dept.writing.wisc.edu/blog/revision-takes-time-teaching-inefficiency-in-the-writing-center/.

In Defense of Constructive Compliments

“Constructive compliments” are often disparaged in traditional academic settings, but it’s worth revisiting their use and implementation in tutoring practice.

By: Catherine Small (’19)
First-Year Tutor

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I was doing an Online Writing Lab session the other day and found myself struggling to come up with suggestions for the student’s paper. Her voice was strong, and it felt unnecessary to point out things like grammar or syntax just for the sake of correcting something. It was then that I realized; why can’t a successful session be comprised of only positive feedback? Of course, it would need to be meaningful positive feedback, but the same goes for critical feedback as well- so what’s the issue?

It is commonly accepted and widely believed that all good feedback must be critical. “The truth hurts,” we say. Conditioned by the educational systems that have raised us, we enter a session intent on seeking out and correcting errors first and foremost. Positive feedback becomes an afterthought; nothing more than “fluff” or filler content to cushion the blow of the important stuff. However, this is a toxic mindset. When we approach a session this way, our feedback can become pedantic and patronizing rather than helpful and constructive; we sprinkle in a “This is great!” here, a “Good description!” there, and call it a day. As Carol Dweck explained in “Revisiting the ‘Growth Mindset’”, while these kinds of empty remarks may “…make [the student] feel good in the moment”, they fail to give them anything specific and concrete they can carry with them once the session is over.

Constructive and genuine positive feedback can help bolster a student’s confidence in their writing abilities going forward. So tell them what they did well- and mean it. Maybe they have a really unique personal voice. Maybe they organized their paper in a really smart way. Maybe they convey emotion really well in their writing. Whatever the case may be, find something you truly believe they did well, and let them know! We often discuss the ways in which poor feedback can have lasting impacts on students, but rarely do we acknowledge the reverse- if one bad session can turn someone away from writing, then maybe one good one can bring them closer to it.

Work Cited

Dweck, Carol. “Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset’.” Education Week. 25 June 2018,

Changing the Definition of Writing: Moving Away from the White Standard

When we don’t value non-standard English in school, we perpetuate achievement gaps, discourage marginalized groups from writing, and enforce whiteness as the standard.

By: Gigi Shipp (’20)
First-Year Tutor

What may be absent on the radar of my peers, is often blatantly obvious to me, whether it’s lack of representation in media and advertisements, coded hateful rhetoric,  or prevailing racial stereotypes. Growing up in Ann Arbor, I’ve always felt pressured to conform to the norm, which has always been inherently white. Walking on eggshells around my peers, making sure to not make white people feel uncomfortable by my blackness. Only in recent years have I come to recognize and acknowledge the value in my authentic personal voice.

I definitely think that traditional academic institutions perpetuate this standard of conformity to a white default. The oppressive nature of this standard manifests through standardized curriculum and strict rubrics. Focusing on “formal” grammar and mechanics neglects the cultural significance of “informal” or “street” language for marginalized groups. The Writing Center is a different space. An inclusive space.

When tutoring, I like to focus on substance and not get too caught up on grammar and mechanics. I recently received an online writing lab (OWL) submission that had already received feedback from someone else. As I read the comments, I was disheartened by what I saw. While I found that their use of personal voice- things like “ain’t” and unconventional sentence structure- strengthened their piece, the other tutor didn’t agree, advising them to use “writing-English compared to speaking-English.” I feared that the writer would internalize this, and begin to fortify the wall between their personal life and academic life, which creates barriers to writing. The other tutor’s aggressive focus on traditional grammar and mechanics was more harmful than helpful, as it prioritized “form over substance.” As Kynard asserts in New Life in this Dormant Creature, traditional academic institutions measure intellectual capability based off of the presentation of oneself which is influenced by inherent privilege (or lack thereof).

This issue isn’t anything new. I would be remiss to not mention the dark cultural history that has shaped these attitudes. People were ripped from their homes and stripped of their native languages. When they arrived in America, they all spoke different languages and were forced to assimilate, subsequently creating their own unified dialect, known today as African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). What many dismiss simply as slang is actually a legitimate language with conventions, rules, and structures. From this it’s easy to see why it’s no coincidence that black students who speak AAVE are perceived as grammatically defective–this is a deeply embedded form of discrimination.

In 1979, this issue was brought to court here in our own community. The judge ruled that the Ann Arbor Public School district needed to educate their teachers on AAVE and how to be conscious of it while teaching. However, many teachers found this “consciousness training” to be a waste of time and funding. When people perceive black students as defective, it creates “psychological barrier[s] to learning” that lead to outbursts, withdrawn interest in learning, and ultimately, illiteracy. When teachers ignore the existence of the primary language in their students’ lives, they leave behind an entire portion of their student body.

So what’s at stake when we, as tutors, don’t value colloquial language in our school?

  • We perpetuate achievement gaps.
  • We shut off an entire group of people from being encouraged to write.
  • We enforce conformity to a white default.

As tutors, let’s be mindful of unintentional paternalistic attitudes and the dire racial implications that they have. Let’s value different funds of knowledge without pity and instead with admiration.

Works Cited

Fiske, Edward. “Black English Debate Fades in Ann Arbor Where It Began.” The New York Times. 5 May 1981.

Kynard, Carmen. “New Life in this Dormant Creature: Notes on Social Consciousness, Language, and Learning in a College Classroom.  ALT DIS: Alternative Discourses in the Academy. Eds. Christopher Schroeder, Helen Fox, and Patricia Bizzell. Heinemann, 2002.

Tutoring Without A Rubric: Creative Writing in the Writing Center

Many tutors feel that helping writers with creative work is too personal, but it is possible with focused training and a different mindset.

By: Savanna Cowley (’20)
First-Year Tutor

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If you were to approach any tutor within the Skyline Writing Center, they would probably tell you that they consider themselves a creative writer. Whether it be fiction, poetry, songs, or any other writing that isn’t turned in for a grade, more often than not, those people who live to help others with reading and writing pursue it outside of an academic setting.

While this may be true, many tutors are uncomfortable when a student comes into the Writing Center with a creative piece, or feel that pieces of this nature are not supposed to be tutored. According to a study done by the University of South Florida, 16 of the 61 people surveyed claimed that there is no training that could be done to prepare a tutor for assisting with creative pieces, two of them saying that it was impossible to tutor these writers. Many tutors feel that helping writers with creative work is an invasion of privacy, claiming that it is writing that is too personal and an outside glance would be damaging to the author and the piece itself.

It is important to understand that all writing is creative, and is, therefore, possible to tutor. The key to this form of tutoring is a shift in the framing of the piece; tutoring without a rubric can seem daunting, but only requires the tutor to take part in creative thinking as well.

Here are some simple ways to assist creative writers with their work:

  • Always ask the writer what they feel could be improved within their own work. While it is true that they are looking for feedback from an outside eye, it is also important to let them keep ownership over this extremely personal piece. It feels different from tutoring an academic paper because it is; there aren’t guidelines to follow, so finding issues and tweaking them isn’t as simple as we may believe. Asking the writer what they feel are major issues allows them to have complete control over their story and language.
  • More often than not, they are struggling to find the emotion that they feel the audience should be experiencing when reading their work. Ask them what they intend for the reader to feel or think.
  • From there, offer insight into what you feel as you read the piece: are you able to easily follow the plot? What do you believe their intent is, observing their diction and syntax? In other words, treat it like a story you’re reading in English class and analyze it (as a creative writer myself, other people analyzing my work makes me feel all the more established as a writer, so it would give them a major confidence boost).
  • Try not to worry about small issues, like grammar and sentence structure, until the bigger comprehension issues are addressed.

The purpose of creative writing is self-expression, not to seek perfection in the eyes of a teacher or superior. Keeping this in mind truly opens a gateway to fluid imagination and conversation, not only for the writer but for the tutor as well.

Works Cited

Cassorla, Leah F. “Tutor Attitudes toward Tutoring Creative Writers in Writing Centers.” University of South Florida Scholar Commons, Scholar Commons, 2004.

Purdue Online Writing Lab. “Tutoring Beginning Poets // Purdue Writing Lab.” Purdue Writing Lab, Purdue University, 1995-2018.