Writing for Teachers

When you are a student in high school, college, or graduate school, your most common audiences are the instructors who have requested written assignments and who will read and grade what you produce, an especially tough audience for most students.

First, teachers often make writing assignments with the specific intention to measure and grade you on the basis of what you write. Second, teachers often think it their civic duty to correct every language mistake you make, no matter how small. Third, teachers often ask you to write about subjects you have no particular interest in—or worse, to write about their favorite topics! Finally, teachers usually know more about the subject of your paper than you do because they are the experts in the field, which puts you in a difficult spot: You end up writing to prove how much you know more than to share something new with them.

You can't do much about the fact that teachers will use your writing to evaluate you in one way or another—they view it as part of their job, just as they do when making assignments for your own good (but not necessarily interest). However, as an individual writer, you can make choices that will influence this difficult audience positively—especially if you understand that most of your instructors are fundamentally caring people.

In the best circumstances, teachers will make writing assignments that give you a good start. They do this when they make clear their expectations for each assignment, when they provide sufficient time for you to accomplish the assignment, when they give you positive and pointed feedback while you are writing, and when they evaluate your papers according to criteria you both understand and agree with.

But regardless of how helpful you find your teacher, at some point you have to plan and write the paper using the best resources you can muster. Even before you begin to write—or as you think about the assign-ment—you can make some important mental decisions that will make your actual drafting of most assignments easier:

1. Read the assignment directions carefully before you begin to write. Pay particular attention to instruction words such as explain, define, or evaluate—terms that mean something quite different from one another. (See Chapter Eight for more information on instruction words.) Most of the time when teachers develop their assignments, they are looking to see not only that you can demonstrate what you know, think logically, and write clearly, they also want to see if you can follow directions.

2. Convince yourself that you are interested in writing this assignment. It's better, of course, if you really are interested in writing about Moby-Dick, the War of 1812, or photosynthesis, but sometimes this isn't the case. If not, you've got to practice some psychology on yourself because it's difficult to write well when you are bored. Use whatever strategies usually work for you, but if those fail, try this: Locate the most popular treatment of the subject you can find, perhaps in a current newsstand, the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, or the World Wide Web. Find out what has made this subject newsworthy. Tell a friend about it (Did you know that . . . ?). Write in your journal about it, and see what kind of questions you can generate. There is a good chance that this forced engagement will lead to the real thing.

3. Make the assignment your own: Recast the paper topic in your own words; reduce the size/scope of the topic to something manageable; or relate it to an issue with which you are already familiar. Modifying a writing task into something both interesting and manageable dramatically increases your chances of making the writing less superficial because you're not biting off more than you can chew and because the reader will read caring and commitment between the lines.

4. Try to teach your readers something. At the least, try to communicate with them. Seeing your task as instructional puts you in the driver's seat and gets you out of the passive mode of writing to fulfill somebody else's expectations. In truth, teachers are delighted when a student paper teaches them something they didn't already know; it breaks the boredom of reading papers that are simple regurgitations of course information.

5. Look for a different slant. Teachers get tired of the same approach to every assignment, so, if you are able, approach your topic from an unpredictable angle. Be sure you cover all the necessary territory that you would if you wrote a more predictable paper, but hold your reader's attention by viewing the terrain somehow differently: locating the thesis in Moby-Dick from the whale's point of view; explaining the War of 1812 through a series of dispatches to the London Times from a British war correspondent; describing photosynthesis through a series of simulated field notebooks. (I provide these examples only to allude to what may be possible; teacher, subject, and context will give you safer guidelines.)

6. Consider your paper as a problem in need of a solution, or a question in need of an answer. The best way to start may be to try to write out in one sentence what the problem or question actually is, and to continue with this method as more information begins to reshape your initial formulation. For example, the question behind this section is: What is the role of audience in writing? The section itself is an attempt to answer this. (The advice my high school math teacher gave to help solve equations may be helpful here: What am I given? What do I need to know?) Approaching it this way may help you limit the topic, keep your focus as you both research and write, and find both a thesis and a conclusion.

7. View the paper topic from your teacher's perspective. Ask yourself how completing this paper helps further course goals. Is it strictly an extra-credit project in which anything goes? Or does the paper's completion also complete your understanding of the course?

Each of these ideas suggests that you can do certain things psychologically to set up and gain control of your writing from the outset. Sometimes none of these suggestions will work, and the whole process will simply be a struggle; it happens to me in my writing more often than I care to recount. But often one or two of these ideas will help you get started in the right direction. In addition, it helps to consult the teacher with some of your emerging ideas. Because the teacher made the assignment, he or she can best comment on the appropriateness of your choices.

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