Your Written Voice Matters: Embracing Writing Language against the Standards of the Academy

In consultations as a tutor, I notice students struggle with their own written language based on the demands of the academy. Many students enter college feeling their writing is inadequate compared to the academic material they read for courses. This anxiety leads to students and clients adopting writing practices that causes them to lose their personal writing voice and to view any mistake they make as a personal failing instead of the process of writing. Worse, clients come in fearing to use their voice in assignments through overly citing materials, believing they cannot possibly offer anything analytically or mechanically to the academic discussion within their assignment. Fear of sounding unintelligent or demonstrating their incompetence shapes this tactic regardless of discipline and rank, instead of the generalization of student laziness. How do we, as writing consultants, address this issue of encouraging clients to value their learning and written voice while also guide them through acquiring the language of the university?

Student struggles with academic writing shapes how they complete written assignments. My own experiences as a first-generation college student that struggled in high school saw me question my ability to analyze subject material in writing. I fell into the trap of over citation or over quoting secondary sources when I wrote papers, afraid that my writing did not measure up to the standards of my professors or the academy. I see this issue during writing center consultations with clients, many who come in initially for the purpose of getting the paper “fixed” rather than learning the process of writing because they devalue their own voice and analysis through over citation.

When working with clients that have issues of over citation, instead of assuming they are lazy writers, I ask what they know about the subject they are writing about in their own words, giving them time to think and articulate that point. Once this is done, I suggest clients write down what they said to emphasize their own knowledge of the topic. Next, I use writing center resources to demonstrate how the client can use the source material they have consulted to build on their analysis instead of the sources dominating their prose. Through this interaction, I explain to the client that mistakes in a first draft are okay because the writer is figuring out how to process their voice and knowledge into a coherent point. During consultations centered on this issue I encourage clients, regardless of preconceived notions of their own writing competency, that they are demonstrating a grasp of writing by focusing on sections within the document that best illustrate their own written and learning language. My hope is that this type of interaction provides clients a tool for their own writing process and builds confidence in their ability to verbalize knowledge through writing and later revise to adhere to the assignment’s rubric without losing their learning or written language.

One strategy I suggest client try when they get home is using a timed writing exercise to get information on to the paper. I usually suggest they write down a topic sentence about the point they want to make, then set a timer for 10, 15, or 20 minutes with the goal of writing about that topic or point. With this exercise, the client recalls their knowledge and writes it out without leaning on the source material to say something better. After the time is over, they see how many words they wrote and start the revision process after taking a break. I learned this from writing advisors, who encouraged me to use this as a first step to embrace mistakes of the first draft but also demonstrate that I am knowledgeable about the subjects I write about. After that step, you work toward the dictates of the assignment (rhetorical analysis, historical research, reflection) with a starting point and boosted confidence.

Students enter universities under the belief that writing in their courses is high stakes to the point of creating anxiety over perceived inadequacies. The pressure for perfection in writing does not allow students the opportunity to create and learn from their writing mistakes, evident in many clients coming to writing centers just for a fix. If we can impress upon clients that their written perspective matters and that mistakes made in the initial creation of a document are part of the writing process instead of intellectual failings, consultants might be able to better mentor clients’ in the art of writing against the pressure of academic order.

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