The frustrating thing about writing is that there is no one right way, but there are a multitude of wrong ways to go about writing a sentence. One poorly chosen word or misplaced piece of punctuation can not only impede clarity, but change the entire meaning of a sentence, leaving your reader to sit in confusion as they attempt to untangle the meaning behind the jumble of words just read.
I think that’s why I see so many students who come into the Writing Center and say what breaks my heart to hear: “I’m bad at writing.” I hear those words at least once every work shift, if not more. And it never fails to send a little shock of pain through my heart.
I try to encourage them, to say “I’m sure it isn’t as bad as you think it is.” To point out something positive, whether it’s as vital as their thesis being strong or as seemingly little as their formatting being correct (but let’s be real, formatting is a hassle).
And sometimes it helps. Sometimes they cheer up, they smile or shrug with a little laugh and look down at their paper, waiting for us to go to work on it. Those sessions are a dream; those sessions are the ideal. They are a conversation, a sharing of the pen, the poster-child for “teamwork”.
But sometimes they argue. Sometimes they shake their head and say, “no, I mean, really bad at writing.” Emphatic and unrelenting.
Often times, those students have one specific struggle, one specific aspect of writing that they don’t know how to correct. Maybe they haven’t identified their struggle yet, or maybe no one has made themselves available to work with them on correcting it. To be frank, sometimes they are lazy and just want the extra credit points they get for signing in to our computer, and “I’m bad at writing” is an easy conversation starter — it tugs the English major’s heart strings.
Perhaps worse than “I’m bad at writing” is: “I hate writing.”
It’s worse because you can help a student develop stronger writing skills. I did last semester, working twice weekly with a student who struggles with severe dyslexia, who was taught to summarize and never how to create original content. At the beginning of the semester, he would barely speak to me. He would lean so heavily on me, on my abilities to analyze and develop opinions and create ideas, that I had to close myself off before I found myself spoon-feeding him.
But as we worked together, he developed stronger skills in reading and writing until, by the end of the semester, he had improved to the point where I could walk away and leave him to write for over half of the hour he’d been scheduled for.
It’s more difficult to do that with the student who claims to hate writing. Because being bad at something is correctable — you can help someone develop a stronger sense of self-efficacy. But it’s harder to change someone’s mind about an opinion that’s emotionally based.