What is a Good Writer?

What is a good writer? To answer this question, you have to examine what it means to be “good” and what it means to be a “writer,” and then fuse those two definitions together. At first, it may seem self-explanatory—you may want to say that a good writer is someone who makes good grades on written assignments, or simply someone who writes according to the rules of syntax—but time in the Writing Center has shown me that very skilled writers can make low grades on papers, and then syntax-sound papers can say absolutely nothing at all.

Let’s start by deciding who is a writer. Do you enjoy writing? Do you have to write for either school or work? Can you juggle fourteen text conversations simultaneously? Are you regularly updating some form of social media? Have you ever put a pen or pencil on paper and formed words? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are a writer. If you constantly tell yourself that you’re not a writer in general, then you’ll be psychologically blocking yourself from becoming a better writer—you won’t see a point in trying, because you refuse to accept that you’re a writer. But, if you look at the ways you use written communication on a daily basis, you’ll see that you indeed do write. In recognizing that we are writers, whether it’s out of necessity or enjoyment, we open the door for opportunities to improve our skill.

So how about “good?” People frequently come into the Writing Center saying that they were always a good writer in high school, so they were shocked when they made a C (C-, D, etc.) on a paper. Inversely, there’s also a large percentage of people who come in and apologetically confess that they’ve never been good writers because they frequently have comma splices or once made a bad grade and have been roiling in self-doubt.

When thinking about academic writing in college, you can’t always rely upon the grades you made in high school to predict the grades you’ll be making now. In high school, I was the 4.0 student (except for that one tricky 3.69 semester) who could whip out a paper in an hour and ace it. Then, college came, and I thought I could do the same thing. One essay-based test by Dr. Gatton later, and I realized that it is a whole different ballgame in college. Writing well, in the sense of pretty sentences and a strong grasp on grammar, doesn’t always make for good writing.

Instead, good academic writing is that which responds to all parts of the question, displays a thorough understanding of the topic and demonstrates authority, is organized in a logical manner, and is concise and clear. Good grammar plays into this, especially when you have the opportunity to revise a piece before submitting, but can’t be the sole determinant of whether or not you’ll make the grade. While the criteria I listed for good academic writing sounds like a lot, it becomes easier to grasp with a little practice.

Here are some suggestions:

First, keep your prompt handy and reference it throughout your revisions. Making sure you have an understanding of what is being asked before you start writing is crucial, and double checking the question(s) will make sure you both answer everything and don’t go off on tangents.

Step two is looking at your thesis: Do I include a single sentence that provides my readers with a specific road map through my paper? A strong thesis can help you self-correct many of the organizational issues that can wreck a paper.

Next, make a post-outline of your draft. Read through and write the topic of each paragraph in the margins. This allows you to do a few different things: you can look through and make sure that each topic is adequately tied back into your thesis and answering the prompt, and you can see if there are instances in which you have two (or more) topics in a single paragraph. If the latter is the case, this can clue you in on separating something into two or more paragraphs so that each point can be fully developed. A post-outline also helps you decide if your arguments are ordered in the most logical manner– does A logically transition into B, which leads into C?

Then, ask yourself if there is a way to make some things simpler. We may associate seven syllable words and dense language with the academic peer-reviewed pieces we have to read for class, but if we aren’t familiar with writing like that, it will come across awkward, not intelligent. Make every word carry its weight, and if something can be said in fewer words, you can reduce it.

Finally, and this is more than shameless self-promotion, seeking a second set of eyes is crucial. Using resources like the Writing Center allows an outsider response to enter the conversation, and it ensures that there aren’t “well it made sense in my head” scenarios.

Far From Basic

Too often, the Writing Center is thought of as a remedial service—i.e., going to the Writing Center only after making a poor grade or by the recommendation of a professor. It makes sense, because the Writing Center is the perfect place to go when we want to improve upon a part of our writing or do well on a particularly challenging assignment. But, the truth is that the Writing Center is not a specifically remedial service. When consultants come around to classrooms and talk about the Writing Center, we say that we work with writers at any part of the writing process, and we also emphasize that we work with writers at any comfort level with writing.

That one important fact tends to be overlooked: the Writing Center is just as useful of a place for any who consider themselves to be skilled writers.

J.R.R. Tolkien had C.S. Lewis. Virginia Woolf had the Bloomsbury Group. Dorothy Parker had the Algonquin Round Table. And those scholarly journals we have to read for class? They’re peer reviewed. Many of the greatest writers of our time, and the people who make a living researching and writing, seek out the help of others. Writing is a collaborative process, and seeking the advice, feedback, or help of another is not a remedial action—I would actually argue that it’s an advanced writing skill to develop.

Writing is deeply personal. Somehow, we feel that when we put words on paper, others are going to evaluate us in terms of what we write. Do I come across as uninformed? Narrow-minded? Abrasive? It can be nerve wracking to actually hand our paper to someone else and get their feedback because we want to come across as intelligent, likeable people and we never know how someone will react to what we have written.

That, however, is the beauty of it! By sharing our writing with others, such as in a Writing Center session, we can get valuable feedback that continues to improve our writing.

Put yourself in the shoes of Virginia Woolf or J.R.R. Tolkien. Your heart and soul has been made tangible in the form of ink on a page, and you have to hand it over to a peer who you admire for their intelligence and writing prowess. Your hands shake as they leaf through the pages because your words are your most inner truths, and you want them to be impressed. But, stop and think. Do you just want to impress them? Or, do you want them to ask you questions and make suggestions so that the truth of your soul is seen clearly and truthfully by all who may read it?

Think about meeting with a consultant in the Writing Center more along those lines. Ensuring that your writing is clear and powerful through peer review is not remedial or basic. It’s advanced. Coming in to the Writing Center displays a care for your writing that someone writing at a remedial or basic level would not display. Working with a writing consultant is your chance to continue building your writing and revision skills, because it is people who seek out practice and improvement who become notable—those who are comfortable with letting their skills remain as they are will eventually be surpassed.

NPG Ax140432; Lady Ottoline Morrell; Maria Huxley (nÈe Nys); Lytton Strachey; Duncan Grant; Vanessa Bell (nÈe Stephen) by Unknown photographer
The Bloomsbury group consisted of famous English writers such as Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster.
C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien
Students working in the Bellarmine Writing Center.
Students working in the Bellarmine Writing Center.

Apology unaccepted

Giving others feedback on their writing is one thing– having someone give me feedback is a totally different experience.

I write, well, all the time. It’s almost the only thing I seem to do. Out of this, I’ve come to be pretty confident about my writing ability.

Despite this, I recently sat down with another writing consultant to experience the process from the other side of the table, and now, I understand why so many people come in to the Writing Center saying, “don’t judge me, but…” or “it’s really bad, but…”

It can be stressful! Even I thought it was a little stressful, and it’s what I do to fund my coffee addiction. As soon as the idea I was developing came out, I waited, just knowing that I would sound dumb or that the idea was uninteresting, as though there was some perfect writer that one can aspire to be who makes no mistakes and doesn’t need help developing ideas.

I didn’t. It wasn’t. Writing Consultants don’t judge. We listen and help.

Luckily, my experience in the consultant chair quickly made my fleeting nervousness in the writer chair dissipate. It seems like 75% of the appointments I have begin with some kind of apology for mistakes or the simple act of seeking help. Even though I’m used to saying something about how there’s no need to apologize, and that the Writing Center is a place to learn and get practice, I still found myself hesitant to just get a little extra help.

So, apology unaccepted. The simple fact that there are no perfect writers means that every writer is totally justified in having questions. In The Hot SeatThe Writing Center isn’t the “hot seat.” We understand getting feedback as part of a writer’s process!