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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Do you write the way you talk?

A few different people pointed me to a (not so) recent article in The Chronicle, written by a man who writes for a custom essay company (that is, he writes papers for students). It's a fascinating article - every academic definitely should read it. But while the author's story alone is scary/sad/infuriating, I found many of the comments equally fascinating. As you might expect, there's lots of debate about how to avoid/detect plagiarism and who is to blame for the existence of these essay services. One comment, #253 from thodekke, particularly caught my attention. He writes:
"Speaking as an undergraduate student who has to write in many of his classes, I'm confident in saying that I'm much more knowledgable than my writing sometimes suggests. There are those who simply can't articulate thoughts on paper. When given an oral question, they can  answer it and it sounds like a doctorate level thesis. Ask them to write a paper on it and they start sounding like a complete idiot.

I usually write pretty well. That being said, I've never had a class on writing style. In my entire student life, I've never once had a class teaching me *how* to write. I've gotten lessons on how my grammar should be, how I should spell, how I should research... I would have loved an over-arching style class. Just once."
Now, my first thought was that I completely disagree with the first part - if someone truly can answer a question eloquently orally, they should be able to answer it just as eloquently on paper, if for no other reason than they could just tape themselves and transcribe what they said. But as I thought about his larger point, that students are not really taught how to *write*, it occurred to me that perhaps his point about oral versus written communication makes more sense if no one has ever pointed out to him the connection between good writing and good speaking. In my experience, the clearest writing can be read aloud and it sounds like normal speech, but many people seem to see the two forms of communication as completely separate.

I was thinking about this general idea while grading the first papers from my data class earlier in the semester. Many students clearly know that they are supposed to cite sources in a certain way, and with some, it is obvious that they were taught to put a thesis statement at the end of their first paragraph that sums up the points they will make in the rest of the paper. But many use wordiness and rhetoric as substitutes for actual content and they write sentences that I know would never come out of their mouths if they were talking aloud. It often seems like all they should need to do is read their papers aloud to realize that the sentence they've just written makes no sense but I wonder if anyone has ever suggested that they do just that.

Last year, one of the assignments for my writing class was for students to write an oral report. They specifically had to write out exactly what they would say because they swapped papers with a classmate and the classmate was the one who actually read the report aloud to the rest of the class (after whatever editing they wanted to do). The students had a pretty hard time with it but I think it made them take me more seriously when, for the rest of the semester, I would tell them to read their papers out loud to see if they made sense.

But I'm not really a writing instructor; I'm an economist who just happens to think I write pretty well (which I recognize may be a relative thing - I really don't think it's too hard to write better than most economists!). So I'd be curious what others think - are writing and speaking just two sides of the same coin? Do you write the way you talk?

3 comments:

  1. I find that many students struggle to explain economics-related concepts in writing. I'm a high school teacher, so I have students coming straight to my class from subjects like literature or chemistry, each of which have very different writing styles. I like to believe that my writing is very similar to my verbal explanations, but saying "Just write it as you would like to say it" doesn't seem to help my teenage students very much!

    I try to incorporate plenty of modelling of appropriate style and analysis. This includes occasionally giving students an answer that I have written to one of their essay assignments (not just dot points, but the full essay - it's surprising how many teachers haven't written an essay for years!), or developing answer outlines and marking keys. This seems to help bridge the gap between "I understand" and "I can explain" a given concept.

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  2. Thanks Buglegs - your comment reminds me that one of the things I considered doing last year (but did not have time to execute) was giving students my response to an assignment and discussing what makes it an 'ideal' answer, and perhaps asking them to make a direct comparison with their own response. I also want to spend more time with students analyzing how what they have actually written does, or doesn't, convey to the reader what they really intended to say. That gap between understanding and explanation really is the main problem I'm trying to help them solve.

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  3. Professor Imazeki, I actually took a class with you several semesters ago, and I happened on your blog while trying to understand SDSU budget concerns.

    I read the same article as you did on the person who wrote papers for students, and I genuinely felt that you would be interested in this piece of software.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/12/the-simple-software-that-could-but-probably-wont-change-the-face-of-writing/68364/

    I imagine it would be rather simple to tell the difference between a professional writers methods and an average students methods, assuming you had the luxury of actually watching them write out their essay.

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