Writing Mindset Matters

the birth of Athena vase showing Athena being born from Zeus’s head.

Athena springs from Zeus's head. (photo credit: http://www.goddess-athena.org/Museum/Paintings/Birth/Birth_of_Athena_London_E_410_f.htm

It happens every time there’s a paper due.

A bright and capable student waits for me after class. She wants to run her paper idea past me. She’s got a bunch of great ideas and isn’t really sure where to start.  She pulls out an outline and shows it to me. It’s a beautiful outline, but there’s just one problem: There’s about three papers’ worth of thoughts on it.

This is the student that I send to the writing center.

It’s hard to erase the idea among faculty that the writing center is a place where bad papers are fixed. It’s ever harder to convince a smart and talented student that the writing center isn’t a place for bad writers.  

I’ve found that my students who—whether accurately or not—identify as weaker writers have no problem with going to the writing center. And while they might initially go because they’re worried about comma splices and dangling modifiers, they leave with a greater understanding of how writing works as a process, and maybe even more importantly, increased confidence in their abilities as a writer. 

I believe it’s this confidence that can help enable my weaker writers to become better writers. And it’s this confidence that my brightest and most capable students often lack.

Though my strong writers will nod agreeably when I explain how writing is a process—and how this process will often lead to failure before success—they still seem to believe that perfect papers can spring forth from nothing like Athena from Zeus’ brow. To these students, the fumbling, stumbling steps of the writing process (including failure) are a sign of danger or potential weakness. Confidence can carry a writer through the stickiness of this difficult process.

I think sending a bright and unconfident writer to the writing center accomplishes several things. First, when a student hears that writing is hard from a teacher, it’s easy to brush off the advice as proselytizing. I’ve found students are more likely to listen when they hear that writing is hard from fellow students. Second, going to the writer center often makes students better managers of their time. The chance to receive valuable feedback on an assignment before a professor grades it is incentive enough for many of my procrastinators to begin their writing projects sooner. Third, and perhaps most importantly, students leave the writing center not only with ideas for a better paper, but often with a better idea of their own general writing practices. For example, my students who claim they always write bad conclusions suddenly realize after a writing center visit that it’s hard for them to write a compelling conclusion after dealing with the paper’s minutiae for hours. 

All of these realizations build confidence in writers, and confidence can help teachers guide students to being better writers. Better writing is what we all want to see happen—teachers and students alike.