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Encouraging a Writer Identity

It is a commonly accepted notion that people tend to expend more effort and time on activities that they enjoy doing, whether that activity is shopping, playing music, building model airplanes, or even doing homework. The same idea applies to writing. In a study I recently conducted about the effect a writer identity has on students’ responses to feedback, I found that students who identified as writers were a) more likely to come to the writing center in the first place, and b) more likely to return to the writing center after the initial appointment. Interviews conducted as part of the study shed light on an interesting concept: students often mentioned enjoyment of writing as key factors of what they thought was a good writer, and whether they considered themselves writers or not.

For the students who did identify as a writer, several of them cited a teacher or sibling whose love for and enjoyment of writing was contagious. One participant related that he first became interested in writing because his older brother seemed to be having “so much fun” writing. Another said that her high school teachers—particularly in her sophomore and junior years—really “inspired me all the time to write all sorts of things.” Yet another gave the credit to her parents, citing them as supportive in her exploration of the craft. Thus, as people who generally already have some sort of interest in some aspect of writing, the writing center staff is perfectly poised to help other students make an identification as a writer.

While a lot of whether or not a student chooses to identify as a writer rests on the teacher, and the way he or she forms the writing prompts, several studies have indicated that the student needs a personal interest in the subject to truly benefit from techniques aimed at encouraging the writer’s identification. As much composition study literature has already established, the Writing Center is not the classroom, nor should it aim to be. If the teacher focuses on forming prompts that allow the student to insert a personal valence, or value, to the assignment (i.e. open ended topics that allow the student to write about something that interests him or her), the Writing Center can play wingman and attempt to bolster that interest by providing encouragement the student with encouragement about the status of his or her writing, and by demonstrating and talking about the things that drew them to writing as well.

Of course, the focus should remain on the student during these consultations, so long, drawn out autobiographies about how you came to like writing are unnecessary. The occasional comment like, “I really like the way you get your point across here with your phrasing. One of my favorite things about writing is the ability to explore how one can communicate through uncommon or unusual syntax, and you do a fantastic job of it here” or “I always thought it was fascinating the way language can be used to form powerful images, and your paper does a really good job of using imagery effectively.” Slipping the “I like writing because…” comments in with comments of praise will both make the student more susceptible to the idea of identifying as a writer while at the same time helping he or she realize that he or she can write, and what’s more, he or she can write well. The praise encourages the student to push him or herself to keep up the good habits, while the comments about writing will hopefully give them a reason to keep striving beyond what is merely “acceptable.”

Getting excited about writing—particularly the writing of the student with whom you are having the consultation—serves another purpose: it gets the student excited about their writing as well. Recently, a friend recounted her experience at the writing center to me. She had gone there for help about a paper that was mostly finished, but that she wasn’t quite sure how to end. As she spoke with the writing fellow and explained what she was trying to do, the two of them were able to engage in a truly collaborative experience where he asked a question that prompted an idea in her mind that he to which he added another caveat that sparked yet another idea for her. All the while, the fellow was getting excited about the progress that they were making, which in turn made her excited. She left the center eager to work on her paper and implement the ideas.

If the writing fellows can generate more experiences like the one just described above, then the more that people come into the center, the more they will be able to see that writing is more than just something that “we ha[ve] to do,” as one interviewee from my study said about her high school experiences with writing, and needless to say, she did not identify as a writer. It can be an enjoyable experience that can lead to self-discovery, a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment, and the production of increased knowledge about various issues. Granted, getting excited for every student who walks through the door of the writing center can be difficult, however, if we make the effort, the rewards for both the student and for us will be bountiful.