If you’re ever sitting around in a coffee shop with a bunch of writers and you suddenly feel like inciting even more passion than that engendered by the question of whether the Oxford comma is really that important or a Top 13 list of the best writers ever, throw out this firecracker: “Can people learn to be good writers or do they have to be born with writing talent?” As a writer, professor, and department chair for general education, I encounter heated variations of this debate more often than I hear one of my kids say, “Have you seen my cell-phone charger?” Yes, that often.
Interestingly, the people most often standing neck-deep in the “good writers are born, not made” mire are the students themselves, especially adult learners. Over the years, I’ve heard a kaleidoscope of versions of this myth—yes, myth, one that’s right up there with the idea that says all writers must live in dingy attic garrets and drink cheap red wine incessantly although, frankly, sometimes a nice, quiet garret and even awful wine sound wonderful after a day of trying to get words to do what you want. Bank vice presidents, FBI agents, cattle ranchers, work-at-home parents, and computer gurus with impressive skills in diverse areas all have bemoaned their bad luck or, more pointedly, their bad writing genes thanks to their parents. They’re not talking about the ability to replace Harry Potter on the shelves; they just are certain that they can’t write well and never will be able to write well. Without a doubt, most of them would rather be stuck in an elevator with their five least-favorite relatives than have to write anything more than their signature.
Just as I tell my kids, “You absolutely CAN do this!” about everything from finding their cell-phone chargers on their own to figuring out the geometry that I think of as a foreign language, I tell my adult learners—smart, amazing people—the truth: The biggest issue they have is not with commas, Oxford or not; it’s not even with reflexive pronouns. The problem in all caps and bold is that they don’t believe they can learn to write well. As Henry Ford said and as therapists all over the world say until they must feel like they need therapy themselves, we have to believe we can do something to be able to do it. As a professor, it’s my job to help my students find out that they can learn to write well; as a department chair, it’s my job to help other professors help their students improve their writing, the same thing each of us works to do every day, whether we write on our laptops, on lined sheets of paper, or in our heads.
So where do I start? As with most stories, I start at the beginning with a world-changing idea for these amazing, worried students: “Here’s a secret: I wasn’t born with a degree and neither was any other professor you’ll ever have. Every professor you’ll ever have started his career with his or her first class, just as you did. Every best-selling writer had to start with the basics, often learning how to write by reading, not by composing poems in their cribs. Here’s another secret: Every writer, even—yes, I swear it—Stephen King, Shakespeare, J.K. Rowling, and Tolstoy—had to work to improve his or her writing. Progress is what matters, and I KNOW you can do it. I’ve never had a student expire in my class yet, and in a few weeks, you’ll be amazed at how you’re able to shine more brightly at work, at school, and in your personal life with your improved writing skills. Remember: “You CAN do this.”
Sound simple? It is, but research backs up the idea that confidence-inspiring encouragement from the professor makes a positive difference with students, especially in adult learners’ first two years of studies. In case you plan to create coffeehouse chaos by bringing up this topic, a few references for papers you can review and perhaps use to deflect invective even hotter than your latte follow this article. You’ll find countless more articles on the topic in the scholarly section of your library, online or physical.
Next time, I’ll talk about techniques that just might convert accounting majors to English majors or at least help them transform themselves into accounting majors with an appreciation of the power of the written word for us all, regardless of our field or path. It may be the only way for them to explain all their spreadsheets of numbers to the masses including those of us searching in vain for our cell-phone chargers. I KNOW they can do it!
Mortimore, J. M., & Wall, A. (2009). Motivating African-American students through information literacy instruction: Exploring the link between encouragement and academic self-concept. The Reference Librarian, 50(1), 29-42.
Owen, A. L. (2010). Grades, gender, and encouragement: A regression discontinuity analysis. The Journal of Economic Education, 41(3), 217-234.
Russell, B., & Slater, G. R. (2011). Factors that encourage student engagement: Insights from a case study of “first time” students in a New Zealand university. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 8(1), 7.