How does making choices help developing writers?
In our study, we learned that when writers can make their own choices to fit the needs of their audience and the expectations of that community, they are more likely to consider themselves effective writers.
Having choices in writing
Consider Katie in Chapter 4 and the distinctions she makes between writing a press release and the writing she was doing at school:
[a] press release is written like a newspaper article. You have to lead with the most important thing, and then you give the background information later on. Whereas, in college I’d been writing, have the background information at the top and then get more and more specific or get to your point at the bottom
Katie understands the difference between writing a press release and an academic paper for class, listing the features of each.
Author Ryan McCarty explains:
Rather than just writing the same way for different audiences, Katie identifies what the audience in each community needs and makes choices appropriately.
Now consider Grace in Chapter 7:
One of the reasons why I hate writing is because I’ll read [my writing], and I’m like, ‘This isn’t just like these masterpieces from all these books that I read.’ Then I get really upset about it, because … it’s just a stylistic problem. It just doesn’t flow the way I want it to. It’s not perfect, and I think part of what makes me so frustrated about it is because I read these great books that I’m never gonna match up to when I write. I just get really disheartened.
As author Anna Knutson explains, despite being an honors student and an avid reader, Grace hates writing because her school writing does not sound like the fiction she reads for fun.
Instead of making choices in her writing, like Katie, Grace attempts to write the same way regardless of audience their expectations: she doesn’t seem to recognize that the way something sounds in fiction won’t be the same way it sounds in other kinds of writing. Grace’s inability to recognize choices she can make in her writing prevents her from developing as a writer and makes her believe that she cannot write well.
FOR INSTRUCTORS: helping students make choices
Students benefit from being taught how to make choices in their writing to meet the needs and expectations of their audience. Take another look at Grace and how she’s been taught to write:
Two years of AP English with the same instructor prepared her to succeed in at least two domains of writing: timed essay exams, such as the AP exam and the ACT exam, and his class, which seems to have had quite rigorous—and specific—standards for writing. Grace valued this learning, perhaps so much that it became entrenched, as Anson describes: ‘When writers’ contexts are constrained and they are subjected to repeated practice of the same genres, using the same processes for the same rhetorical purposes and addressing the same audiences, their conceptual framework for writing may become entrenched, ‘solidified,’ or ‘sedimented’ (77). Anson suggests that the “misapplication of habituated practice” is typical among high school students who have become accustomed to particular types of writing; Grace may be one of these students.
Practice in one type of writing can improve that one type, but it doesn’t help teach students how to make choices or develop flexibility in writing in different ways for different audiences. Check out How writers respond to audience expectations for tips for teaching students to make choices in their writing that adapt to the varying needs of an audience.
Making choices, reflecting on them, and developing as a writer
As author Naomi Silver explains, it’s about making choices, but it’s about reflecting on those choices. Naomi describes Sophie, who, in her entry interview, articulates why she chooses Prezi as her presentation medium:
Prezi sort of allows you to almost communicate your thought process through the presentation, because you can zoom. We had this one map that we’re showing and then we want to show another map next to it and, rather than clicking on the next slide, we just zoom out, and you can see both maps next to each other. Which, when you’re watching something, it’s just much more visually appealing.
Sophie describes a connection between what appears on two different maps and how she envisions their relationship
by presenting the connection visually as well as verbally using the Prezi platform’s unique ‘zooming’ affordances, and she articulates that relationship in her depiction of the ‘presentation’ itself as ‘almost communicat[ing] [her] thought process. Although Sophie falls back on the language of ‘visual appeal’ (similarly to Katie) to explain why she prefers the spatial relationship enabled by the Prezi platform to a more linear, slide-based presentation platform, it seems clear that she has an intentional rhetorical design in mind (metacognitive awareness) and is able to choose the appropriate medium … to facilitate it (metacognitive regulation).
Sophie makes a choice about why she uses prezi over powerpoint, and then can explain how prezi makes it the more effective presentation platform in this case.
Jenna, also in Naomi’s chapter, explains how her writing choices help her develop her argument:
I saw that there were a lot of different ways to say something, if that makes sense. It depends who you’re saying it to and why you’re saying it. I realize you have to think—there are a lot more decisions that go into how you want to convey something….Like how do you want to—do you want it to be in an essay? Like literally words on a page or do you want to turn it into something with pictures or do you want to put it on a website? All of the things that play into that. If it’s just an essay anyone can read it but then if you put pictures with it you’re influencing people to see a certain thing or if you put it on a website then how do people navigate your website and where is the emphasis? There’s so many decisions that go into that.
Jenna doesn’t make choices just because she knows she should, she reflects on which choices would be best to help develop and support her argument.
FOR INSTRUCTORS: helping students reflect on the choices they make
When students work on and submit writing assignments, consider having them submit a reflection that explains the variety of choices they made in their composition.
Students can answer questions like, what audience are they writing to and what writing choices have they made to develop their argument for this audience? What kinds of expectations will their audience have about how their work is written? Will they be looking for particular formatting or organizational choices, for instance? What kind of evidence would appeal to this audience?
These conversations can occur at any stage of the writing process.
Making choices, reflecting, and becoming a “writer”
Students considered themselves writers when they could draw on their range of writing resources, make decisions about which resources to use, and reflect on those choices. Author Anne Gere highlights students who talk about this process:
For example, in talking about a writing course, Joy commented on learning about the ethics in writing and how to be a more credible writer. Those are skills that I can carry over to magazine journalism….I would definitely take what I’ve learned in this class and apply it to making videos for ‘Her Campus,’ a nationally circulated online magazine. Sophia talked about using reflection outside of the academy: ‘I had to apply, over the summer, for that job. It was a lot about reflecting on past experiences in terms of leadership, and working in teams and stuff like that. That kind of forced me to think about all the experience I’d had up until that point and flesh them out into a way that made me seem desirable as a candidate.’ Because she had learned how to reflect on her writing, Sophie was able to transfer that capacity to writing a job application. In addition to transferring learning from one context to another, the repertoires students claimed gave them rhetorical flexibility: ‘My style changes based off of what type of paper it is,’ said Jack. Jonah claimed, ‘I think that [reflection] eventually will translate into, will help me in a job in the future, just being able to adapt and learn different ways of writing….I’m probably not going to be writing research papers or essays about stuff, but I think it does translate into other ways of working.’ This capacity for using reflection to identify one’s own writerly abilities and to figure out how to use them in new situations points to another dimension of writing development.
This is similar to students’ reflections about making multimodal choices and becoming a “writer”: How do writers compose in the digital age?
When writers are given the opportunity to make their own choices to fit the needs of their audience, they are more likely to consider themselves writers.