Writing as “Serving the Work”

Writing

I am a first-generation writer. My mother and grandmothers kept diaries, but none of them wrote anything with the express purpose of having it read by someone outside the family. I had a few good teachers who encouraged my writing, and I had a few teachers and professors over the years who told me that I needed to become a better writer. In the end, I learned how to write, and continue to learn how to write, by writing.

I have been grading the papers of college students for more than two decades, but this was the first semester in which I actually taught a first-year college writing course. (See my posts on this semester’s Created and Called for Community course). I have done a lot of writing over the years, but going into this semester I was nervous about teaching students how to write. Thankfully, Messiah College offered some training and resources to help me in this endeavor.

This semester I spent time working with my students on their thesis statements, footnotes, bibliographies, and rough drafts. We devoted entire class periods to writing.  I encouraged peer review. I wrote endless marginal comments. I think I did everything I was supposed to do.

But in the end, some students still struggle with writing clear and concise prose. They still get basic punctuation wrong. They write in passive voice. Run-on sentences abound. Some of these students have improved over the semester. Others have not.

I just finished reading the rough drafts of their final paper. Many of them are in great shape. These are a joy to read. But other papers have left me frustrated. Somewhere along the way, my students have come to think that in order to get a good grade on a paper they need to merely respond to every marginal comment I write or awkward sentence I identify. But I can’t line-edit every paper. I can’t offer sentence-by-sentence revisions. So when they do not get the grade they wanted, they send me an e-mail complaining: “I don’t understand why I got such a low grade (usually a “B” or “B+”). I did everything you told me to do in the rough draft.” In other words, “I jumped through the hoops you set out for me. Now why didn’t I get an A?”

But writing is not that simple. Granted, it comes easy for some people. But for others, like me, it takes work. It requires rewriting, editing, rewriting, editing, and rewriting and editing again and again until a sentence or a paragraph shines. It is like polishing a stone or sanding a piece of wood–elbow grease is necessary. We can give students all kinds of writing wheels, manuals, lectures, videos, exercises, and extra help, but how do we teach students to embrace the grind?

Earlier this semester, we read a wonderful essay by Dorothy Sayers titled “Why Work? Here is Sayers:

…the worker’s first duty is to serve the work. The popular catchphrase of today is that it is everybody’s duty to serve the community. It is a well-sounding phrase, but there is a catch in it.  It is the old catch about the two great commandments. “Love God and your neighbor; on those who commandments hand all the Law and the Prophets…

There is, in fact, a paradox about working to serve the community, and it is this: that to aim directly at serving the community is to falsify the work; the only way to serve the community is to forget the community and serve the work. There are three good reasons for this:

The first is that you cannot do good work if you take your mind off the work to see how the community is taking it–any more than you can make a good drive from the tee if you take your eye off the ball…If your heart is not wholly in the work, the work will not be good–and work that is not good, serves neither God nor the community; it only serves mammon. 

The second reasons is that the moment you think of serving other people, you begin to have a notion that other people owe you something for your pains; you begin to think that you have a claim on the community…But if your mind is set upon serving the work, then you know you have nothing to look for; the only reward the work can give you is the satisfaction of beholding its perfection. The work takes all and give nothing but itself; and to serve the work is a labor of pure love.

And thirdly, if you set out to serve the community, you will probably end by merely fulfilling a public demand–and you may not even do that. A public demand is a changeable thing. Nine-tenths of the bad plays put on in theaters owe their badness to the fact that the playwright has aimed at pleasing the audience, instead of at producing a good and satisfactory play. Instead of doing the work as its own integrity demands that is should be done, he has falsified the play by putting in this or that which he thinks will appeal to the groundlings…and the play fails by its insincerity. The work has been falsified to please the public, and in the end even the public is not pleased. As it is with works of art, so it is with all work.

What might it mean for young writers to “serve the work?” I tell my students that their work at becoming better writers will one day benefit the communities they hope to serve. Do they believe me?  Some do. But others grow impatient. They just want to be told how to get a good grade and move on to the more “important” classes in their majors.

But there has been a lesson here for me as well. Over the course of the semester I have tried to have more patience with my students. I have taken more time than usual with their papers. I am learning to serve the work.

Some Simple Ways First-Year College Students Can Improve Their Writing

writing-923882_960_720

This week I graded sixty-eight 750-word analytical essays that students wrote in my Created and Called for Community course at Messiah College.  Student essays responded to this prompt:

Write a paper responding to one of the readings on education (by Stanley Hauerwas or John Henry Newman or Ernest Boyer). Choose one point / claim / argument in the reading you choose, and respond to it using the one of the following invention processes: agree-disagree or define by qualifying or amplifying a point.

Since this is a designated writing course, I spend more time with each essay than I would in an average history course. After I returned the papers to the students on Friday, I took a few minutes to address some common mistakes:

  • Read the paper aloud. If a sentence sounds awkward to the ear consider rewriting it.  Even better, read the paper to someone else.
  • The real work of writing begins on the second or third draft.
  • Active voice
  • When a sentence ends with a quote, the period goes inside the quotation marks.
  • If a sentence is longer than three lines it is probably too long.  There is nothing wrong with short sentences.
  • Avoid phrases like “I believe” or “I feel.”  Just say it. For example, some students write:  “I really feel Ernest Boyer is right about community and I truly believe we should work harder at implementing his vision at Messiah College.” Just say “Ernest Boyer is right about community and we should work harder at implementing his vision at Messiah College.”
  • Don’t put too much bibliographical information in a sentence.  Avoid sentences like this: “Ernest Boyer, on page 17, paragraph 7 of the CCC Reader edited by Jim LaGrand, says….” This is why we have citations.
  • After the instructor returns a paper the student should read everything he or she writes on it.  If a professor puts a lot of red ink on a paper it is because he or she wants to help the student become a better writer.

On Teaching Writing, Christian Thinking, and Meaning-Making

writing-923882_960_720

As many of you know, this semester I am teaching three sections of a Messiah College course called Created and Called for Community (CCC).  This is a required course for first-year Messiah students. They take it in the second semester at the college.

CCC has three main goals:

  1. It serves as one of two first-year writing courses required of all Messiah College students.
  2. It introduces students to Christian higher education and how Messiah College approaches the task of Christian higher education. This is a course on Christian thinking.
  3. It teaches students how to read and engage texts.  We challenge students to “make meaning”out of these texts through close reading and conversation.

On Monday, we spent the entire class period preparing students for the 500-750 word analytical essay they will submit at the end of the week.  The essay will engage a class reading on Christian education.  Students have three choices here: Stanley Hauerwas’s essay “Go With God,” Ernest Boyer’s “Retaining the Legacy of Messiah College,” and John Henry Newman’s “What is a University?”  Once students pick an article, they will narrow their focus to one central claim or argument and build an essay around it.  They will either write an “agree or disagree” essay or an “amplification” essay.

As I talked to the students about how to compose this essay, I warned them about separating the logistics of writing (thesis statements, summarizing, arguing, opening paragraphs, conclusions) from the other two stated goals of CCC.  Many first-year students don’t naturally make the connection between writing and thinking. They also don’t see writing as a spiritual discipline–a way of worshiping God with their minds.

We talked a lot about how to write in a nuanced, complex, and humble way.  First-year college students have opinions, but those opinions are not fully formed.  They are in no position to “agree” or “disagree” at any deep level with people like Stanley Hauerwas, Ernest Boyer, or John Henry Newman.  This should not stop them from trying, but such writing must remain humble.  I hope I did not offend students when I told them that they are not (yet?) as smart as Hauerwas, Boyer, and Newman.  Neither do they know as much about the subject of Christian education as these esteemed writers.  If they disagree with the central premise of one of these articles, they still must write as if these authors can teach them something about how to think Christianly about their college experience.  If students can develop this kind of nuanced and complex writing, and translate it to the way they engage the world, we may well be on our way to avoiding the kind of polarizing public discourse we find in the country today.

On Wednesday we are reading Boyer’s essay on Messiah College. Follow the class here.

Writing as Thinking

writers+practice+coverJohn Warner is the writer of two recent books on writing: Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.  Over at the Pedagogy & American Literary Studies blog, Benjamin Murphy, a PhD candidate in English at UNC-Chapel Hill, interviewed Warner.  Here is a taste:

BJM: I want to hear more about the writer’s practice. Could you elaborate on a phrase that comes up in the books a lot. What does the phrase, “Writing as thinking” mean?

JW: To me, the base unit of writing is the idea. And actually, sometimes it’s not even an idea, maybe that’s too strong. It’s a notion—an idea in your brain and you think, this seems true, or this seems interesting. You start there. And the process of writing may reveal other ideas that link to that, or it may enhance that idea; or it may prove that the idea is faulty as far as you can tell. But when we start with an idea, we think through the implications. We follow the chain of thoughts, sometimes bound by logic, but sometimes bound by imagination or surprise. I may be writing on a topic and something from left field comes in and suddenly I see a relationship. I have this idea and I see what confirms or challenges it and head off in a new direction, arriving at the end with an altered idea. When students can do that, they develop a practice. Unfortunately, too much of schooling (as opposed to learning) involves students thinking they have to figure out everything they want to say before they start. In reality, writing is a process of discovery. Saying that “writing is thinking” honors discovery and that each of us has our own view of the world, that we are unique intelligences with unique things to say.

BJM: And I think that connects to another phrase that appears a lot. What do you mean by “reading like a writer”?

JW: Reading like a writer is, for me, the opposite of how many students have been trained to read. They’re accustomed to doing a narrow close reading. Not close reading in the analytical sense, but more like scanning to extract a nugget of information for an exam. That’s what reading often means: finding the pre-determined answer to perform understanding. It’s not a matter of what the text means for a student in particular or about what it might mean in a broad context; just about what information is in a passage according to some abstract state of mind. But reading like a writer considers not raw meaning so much as the creation of meaning—not only what a text means but how and why it means. My graduate degree is an MFA in creative writing, and this approach is built into my origins as a fiction writer. When I read something that blows me away, my first reaction is appreciation; my second reaction is to ask, “OK, how did the book do that?” And my third reaction is usually, “How can I steal that?”

Read the entire interview here.

Term Paper Tips

It is that time of year again.  College students around the country are writing term papers.  I hope that some of them have been working on these papers all semester, but I imagine that a lot of them are just getting started, despite the fact the we are just about at the end of the Fall term.


If you need some last minute help on that history term paper, Adam Arenson of Manhattan College is here to help.  Check out his piece at History News Network: “How Your Term Paper Is Like an Episode of CSI.”

Here is a taste:

Keeping focused on the argument at hand. Television shows create and solve problems so well that they need to create dead ends and dismissed possibilities to keep viewers along for the ride.
Your research and writing process will have a lot of dead ends of on its own: hunches that don’t pan out, sources you can’t find, ways of framing the argument that turn out to be all wrong. Unlike TV, we generally don’t want to hear about them, but it is worth including a few of the alternative explanations that rival your argument, and demonstrate why your thesis is the one that will carry the day, not that idea the police captain at the desk insists is correct.
Condensing research into its most effective form. Do you notice how television shows ask for DNA evidence and get it immediately? Or say they will go through all the surveillance footage for the past three weeks, and then cut to the telling clip? That’s because they don’t have time to show you how long these procedures really take, between the actual labor and the lab backlogs (which are months, years, and even the equivalent of never-tested rape kits in some states). Skipping the tedium, and the waiting, and the uninteresting dead ends means that results magically appear: the perfect evidence for the search is revealed succinctly, and the chase moves on.
Your research paper should do the same thing. For a quality research paper, you will read lots and lots of things that aren’t relevant to your paper, and find evidence that isn’t quite good enough to make it into the text. That’s the nature of the business—so don’t put that dross in your paper. It can all go in your bibliography, and some can go in your citations as “For similar cases, see….”. Even an invaluable source will go on at length, and that isn’t an invitation for a long block quotation. Take the juiciest bits, string them together with ellipses, and keep moving.


Read the entire piece here.