This essay by Emily Vrabac, a Spanish and Economics major, was originally written for "Topics in Composition," a course that staff members must take during their first four terms working in the Writing Center. In the process of discussing the composition she wrote for distribution in Coe's toilet facilities, Emily offers several insights into how a Coe student perceives academic writing--and how writing for professors might differ from writing for her peers. This piece appeared in the October edition of The Word Shop, a publication of the Coe Writing Program.
Back in November of '93, I decided to write an essay concerning the damaging effects that rumors can have on an individual. The issue is pertinent to this campus because it is small, and rumors tend to run rampant. Having become very situation with the situation, I decided to voice my opinion. Although I thought of using the Cosmos, the campus newspaper, for my writing, I finally decided to publish my message in a lesser-known publication called "Off the Wall," a weekly newsletter of sorts posted on the bathroom stalls of the dorms. The majority of the writing published are excerpts from newspaper and magazine articles discussing a particular issue. There are rarely, if ever, essays written by Coe students. Because of its method of distribution, I knew that almost everyone on campus would read what I wrote, and furthermore it would break the monotony of reading pieces written by total strangers.
Writing this paper for personal reasons was different than doing it for a class. For one thing, I didn't have a due date. But I also discovered a few other and more fundamental differences between writing papers for academic purposes and for personal purposes. These differences involve the purpose of the paper and the audience for whom the paper is directed, the method the writer uses to construct the paper, and the language and mechanics used in each type of writing.
When I sat down to write my essay, I felt overwhelmed. I had too much to say in so little space ("Off the Wall" is only one page long). I decided to narrow my essay down to the components of rumors that directly affect Coe students, my target audience. Since I wanted to make everyone think twice before passing on a rumor, I included a personal experience of a rumor spread about me when I was in high school. Then I suggested that my readers put themselves in the position of a person who the rumors were about. Would they want the same things said about them?
In writing this personal paper, I was using my own ideas. I didn't have to do any research; my goal was to prove my point through my personal opinions and experience. In preparation for writing an academic paper, one step is usually to conduct research in the library, finding support for a thesis. Since most academic papers depend on using citations from published resources, it is difficult to include one's own opinions on the subject. It is writing not conducive to expressing personal feelings.
I wrote the essay using first and second person, as if I were having a conversation with the student. I used a more relaxed style of writing than I would in an academic paper for a class, I would NEVER use first or second person. Third person point-of-view is a must in most classroom situations, but had I used it for my essay, my argument would not have been as effective. My audience was my peers, not my professors. I used many slang terms, and even made a few sarcastic comments (humor is a great way to let my peers know I'm on their level). This type of diction is not an option for an academic paper. In fact, many students purposely use big words and a formal language in an attempt to impress the professor. I have had many people ask me for advice along these lines: "Emily, what's a more official-sounding word for thing?" They want to give the impression that the paper has been constructed in a studious manner. I have also been guilty of this and have even found myself doing it in this commentary. But with my "Off the Wall" composition, I was not trying to impress my audience in any way; I just wanted to get my point across in a way that wasn't over their heads.
To understand this need for a language change, it is useful to consider the purpose behind the paper. Whether professors like it or not, students are generally writing their papers to get a good grade. They may enjoy writing the paper and learn something, but the main goal is to receive an "A." My purposes in writing my "Off the Wall" paper had nothing to do with obtaining a great letter grade. The grade I was to receive was not a letter grade, but a social grade of sorts. Acceptance, or at least acknowledgement, of my opinions by my peers was what was important. I had to "speak their language" in order to achieve a good grade with them. For this same reason, I think it is easy to forget about the content of a paper when writing for a professor. Concentrating on the letter grade can many times inhibit what students really want to say. I have run into this attitude many times when working in the Writing Center. I suggest improvements to a student, only to be hit with statements like, "I know the professor doesn't agree with writings by that author so I don't include that point-of-view. She (or he) will dock my grade." They feel they have to stick to the safety of the conventions (not going against the professor's preferences) so that the professor will appreciate the paper's conclusions and give them an "A." I have also seen papers come into the Writing Center that lash out at the professor's opinions and the students have received poor grades. The student has been told to revise the paper but doesn't know what to do. Should I tell them to write what they may not believe?
For my "Off the Wall" essay, mechanics were not my number one concern. Sure, I wanted to have all the words spelled correctly, but I was more preoccupied with readability and content than with outward appearance. I didn't want anything to fly over the readers' heads. I used several sentences that professors might consider choppy, but I felt the shorter sentences would help get my point across in a concise manner. In a paper for a class, regardless of what I was saying, I would want it to appear flawless on the surface. Once again, this goes back to the point about the different types of grades. Many students (including myself at times) feel that good mechanics will help them attain the highest grade possible. They hope the professor won't take time to look past the paper's surface and find that the content isn't as good as it appears. They play on the fact that first impressions make a difference. The professor will probably take it more seriously if the mechanics are close to flawless. In my essay, I would go nowhere without good content. My "grade" would be horrible if I had nothing to say.
My essay was published in the second week in February and posted on all the bathroom stalls. It hadn't even been out an hour when I began hearing feedback. Within the next couple of days, all kinds of people were talking about my essay and what it meant to them. Everything I heard was positive (no one would go against the conventions and challenge my opinions!). People said they agreed with me that rumors are a big problem, and they commended me for taking a risk by sharing a personal experience. It amazed me how many people took it seriously. I had assumed people would just read it and go on their merry way. Instead, girls in the bathroom were talking about the moral aspects of the whole problem of rumors--what a surprise!
I don't know what I would have done without the assistance I received in the Writing Center. The feedback from the writing consultants was exactly what I needed because they were part of my intended audience. If a sentence sounded unclear to them, chances are it would sound weird to any Coe student. Responding to my essay was also a new experience for the writing consultants. Normally, with academic papers, they are forced to put themselves in the position of a professor reading the paper for a class. In my case, they could just be themselves, their own personal opinions giving me insight into how my paper should be constructed. Since it was a paper about a campus-wide social issue, the consultants were coming from the same background as I was. With academic papers, the consultant doesn't always know the professor, the intended audience. It is harder to make assumptions about what the professor will like and how a paper will be perceived.
When college students write papers for college classes, it is easy to get caught up in writing for the grade instead of writing for the enjoyment or education. Having does this commentary on my own free will, and having received feedback on more than one draft, I am beginning to adopt a different perspective on writing papers for a class. I am now writing to inform my professor concerning what I have learned, not simply to pass his class. It makes the writing process less strenuous and burdensome. I do not have to prove anything; instead I am sharing my discoveries. This attitude is something we talk about frequently in the Writing Center. We call it "owning" the paper: to write for your own purposes, not to worry about trying to control the responses of the professor. "Owning" isn't a concept that can be taught. Students will probably come to realize it eventually, and when they do, they will have more fun writing, taking risks more often. They may also be pleasantly surprised to find that good grades are even more satisfying when they are perceived as a bonus and not a necessity.