There Is a Big Misconception About Writing, Across Disciplines. We Can Fix It.

Perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions across disciplines is that good writing is equivalent to good grammar and mechanics, and a polished final product.

This harmful misconception turns writing into drudgery, as it rests on the assumption that to write well, one must master drab rules about punctuation and sentence structure and have clearly formulated arguments in mind. This type of thinking also limits opportunities for most disciplines to take advantage of writing as a tool for learning, as writing just seems to be most relevant to the English department, where grammarians thrive.

In reality, good grammar is just one very, very small aspect of writing – an aspect that mostly becomes relevant in the final stage of writing, as it helps lessen confusion for the reader when trying to convey ideas. More importantly, in order to convey ideas, one must first have ideas to convey, and writing is actually a tool with which to do that. Writing allows you to grapple with concepts and think through arguments presented by others so that you can arrive at your own. This is the crux of the writing across the curriculum (WAC) perspective: that writing is actually a process of critical thinking.

The Real Purpose of Writing

Somewhere along the way in their educational journey, most students miss the message that writing is a process of critical thinking. If we are to help them understand that writing is a process by which we learn critical thinking skills, we first need to help them understand why critical thinking is so important.

Why is it important anyway?

Because it is the way by which we arrive at knowledge.

John Bean, a professor at Seattle University and the author of Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, suggests that most students arrive at college with a dualistic view of knowledge. They believe that the correct answers are somewhere out there, and they need to find them, then use writing to demonstrate that they have acquired them. In reality, Bean suggests, knowledge is dialogic: It grows out of a dialogue that involves engaging with opposing ideas and alternative perspectives that students can actively participate in and contribute to – through writing.

As defined by Bean, academic writing is writing that begins with a problem or question, is characterized by a problem-focused thesis statement, which is then supported by a hierarchical structure of supporting evidence. The thesis statement can be thought of as a writer’s proposed one-sentence solution to the problem or question that is driving the essay. In this way, writing is equivalent to joining a conversation of people who are “jointly seeking answers to shared questions that puzzle them” (Bean 22). This is how knowledge is dialogic: A thesis leads to a counter-thesis and the evolution of ideas through this presence of opposing or alternative voices is what generates knowledge (Bean 22).

Critical thinking is thus the backbone of knowledge. It is also the backbone of academic writing, as for the most part, this kind of writing requires analytical or argumentative thinking skills. We develop critical thinking by practicing it through writing.

Critical thinking has been defined as “an investigation whose purpose is to explore a situation, phenomenon, question, or problem to arrive at a hypothesis or conclusion about it that integrates all available information and can therefore be convincingly justified” (Kurfiss 2). When writing is perceived as a way to conduct a messy investigation of ideas rather than as a polished report of correct information, it frees students to write messy drafts with an exploratory purpose meant to clarify their own thinking. In essence, students can begin to use writing as a tool for honing critical thinking. Grammar in these early investigations of ideas is just not of primary concern.

How to Dispell the Biggest Writing Misconception

To undo these harmful misconceptions about writing, we need to first explain how knowledge is acquired – that knowledge grows out of an active, dialogic thinking process. We then need to invite students to join in this dialogue, to use multiple, early drafts of writing as a way to attempt to make a tentative argument that presents one of many possible perspectives. We need to explain that writing is not primarily a method by which to transmit a message, but first and foremost, it is a way “to grow and cook” the message (Bean 24). We need to explain that a very normal part of writing is the process of crafting multiple messy drafts with scrambled ideas. In doing this, students will be successfully engaging with a problem their writing focuses on, entering the intellectual struggle of developing and clarifying their own ideas. We need to explain that writing at once challenges one as a thinker and clarifies their thinking, and this is how it really becomes a learning tool for critical thinking.

Seeing writing in this sense turns the concept of writer’s block on its head. Because, really, there is no writer’s block. There is only a hesitation to engage with ideas through writing — a hesitation that arises from harmful misconceptions, including the one about grammar and also the one about writing needing to be polished at every stage.

The mere existence of the concept of writer’s block when it come to classroom assignments, to me, simply suggests that in order to help students become more effective writers, learners, and critical thinkers, we need to examine our own assumptions about writing. Then, we need to change the way we think about, talk about, and teach writing.

Want to discover ways to incorporate meaningful writing in your classroom? Learn more about WAC here.

Works Cited

Bean, John C. Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

Kurfiss, Joanne Gainen. Critical Thinking: Theory, Research, Practice, and Possibilities. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 2, 1988. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports, The George Washington University, One Dupont Circle, Suite 630, Dept. RC, Washington, DC 20036-1183, 1988.

One Reply to “There Is a Big Misconception About Writing, Across Disciplines. We Can Fix It.”

  1. I think this is a great, thoughtful post. I agree with your (and Bean’s) thoughts on the iterative process of writing; coining it as some live organism that can strengthen ideas themselves. I also like approaching knowledge with a dialogic view, as opposed to coming at it from a dualistic (right/wrong) perspective. That said, I do wonder how to integrate this philosophy with the realities of how I came to know college education in the US.

    Teaching 101 classes, there is a decent amount of agreed-upon, generally accepted knowledge that I have to deliver. Therefore, this knowledge is taught in a fact-of-matter way and I don’t encourage a dialogic approach per se. The (often more interesting) information is obviously lesser absolute and there I try to move away from a dualistic view. Although this engages students (they like to talk about interesting things too), it also slightly terrifies them, and it quickly invites the infamous question “Will this be on the test?”. And because tests coincide wonderfully with a right/wrong approach to the world, saying “Yes” to this question brings an obligation for me to boil down any discussion to a quizzable (and gradable) answer. This just to make the point that, although knowledge can be approached dialogic, I think not all knowledge necessarily should, and the mechanisms that we use to assess knowledge generally invite the dualistic perspective.

    I worry about implementing the writing-as-critical-thinking approach in a similar way. However, after having employed more low-stakes and scaffolded writing in my class, I feel that the method at least invites thinking of writing as a tool to strengthen ideas instead of perceiving writing as a mere finalized expression of ideas. But, I wholeheartedly agree with placing lesser emphasis on grammar when grading. Though grammar errors might be distracting, they usually do not impede the overall message to such a degree that I don’t understand what’s going on. However, flawless writing should also be rewarded. Therefore, I resolved to allot 10 points to grammar in all writing assignments (high-stakes only). That way, flawless writing is rewarded, but losing points to grammar errors is capped such that the importance is still placed on the content.

    Placing lesser importance on grammar errors might actually also help teachers who fear that assigning writing assignments will exponentially increase their grading load. If you’re doing line by line corrections where you mark every error you come across, assigning writing will undoubtedly increase your grading time. But, as I’ve come to learn through my time as a WAC Fellow, there is no direct relationship between my students’ grammar improving and the amount of time I spent marking grammatical errors. From personal experience, the reverse might actually be true, where students lose motivation to respond to feedback in general when they see their entire paper is marked up. So, since I’ve come to the conclusion that no one really benefits from line by line markings, I mark a few errors in the beginning and then comment on grammar in the endnote often suggesting a peer review round or a consultation at the writing center.

    In Dutch there’s a saying which implies that in order to get good at something you got to “make miles” (officially it says meters). I think the same applies to writing. To get good at it (which includes error-free writing), you have to do it a whole lot. This is precisely the goal of the Writing Across the Curriculum program where college courses are defined as Writing Intensive, such that students are required to write (and learn to write and write to learn) at the college level. Addressing common misconceptions like you did in your post aids this effort.

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