There are many common difficulties that a writing consultant faces as he or she gains experience working at a writing center. Such commonalities creep their way into conversations among consultants, tales from the trenches that, when told, illicit knowing nods from all the veterans in the room. One such difficulty is that of the student who knows what she’s trying to say, but can’t for the life of her figure out how to say it on paper. It’s a strange concept for those of us who wield the pen like all of the men in my life wield Xbox 360 controllers. If you know what you’re trying to say, why don’t you just write it down? There is probably a very complex answer to this that a psychology major somewhere thought up while brewing an extra-pump soy chai tea latte, but I can give you the abridged version: They don’t just write it down because they don’t realize that they can.
Those of us who are comfortable with writing (likely due to an awesome high school English teacher and an avid love of reading) see it as what it is, namely, an outlet for what we want to say. We therefore have no trouble translating our thoughts to paper. We are fluent when it comes to the art of the written word. Unfortunately, many of the students that we are trying to help suffered the majority of their pre-college education at the hands of incompetency. They have it in their heads that writing is this big, complicated, headache-inducing THING, and before they even start, they resign themselves to the idea that they are going to struggle with it. Writing is complicated, with rules, structures, formats, and its own college majors. There’s no way that what a student would normally just say to a friend would fly if submitted to a professor on paper, right?
Our clients have this internal wall built up that somehow separates conversation and writing. So as writing consultants, what do we do to break down this wall? I’m sure many people could weigh in on this with their own ideas. We could start a lively discussion that would be infinitely more productive than anything the comment boards of YouTube have ever experienced. However, all I can do is simply present my own experience with this topic. To break down the wall, I simply show the student that it doesn’t actually exist. I push the paper away, and have her tell me, to my face, what she is trying to say. I then have her write down what she just said. And 9 times out of 10, she is amazed that what she has just told me is OK to have in her paper. Surely it can’t be that easy?
Now, let me just stop here to clarify that I am not encouraging grammatical and rhetorical anarchy (I can only imagine the time required of such an undertaking, and quite frankly, I’ve got enough on my plate.) After the student copies down what she just said, often revisions are needed to make it grammatically correct and give it the necessary level of formality. But the point is that this is something that should be done after the ideas are on the paper; worrying about it beforehand is what got the student stuck in the first place. Such details are what make writing scary. However, once the student actually has what she wants to say written down, these details can then be explored, with the consultant leading the way, of course.
P.S. All that I’m implying with my exclusive use of “she” is that I dislike constantly writing out “he or she” because there is no gender neutral singular pronoun. I really think we need to get one of those. I would make one myself, but here I refer you back to my previous comment about already having enough on my plate.