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.

“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.

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,