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Writer's Studio

Deborah Corpus

College of Education

When somebody says, "I want to be a teacher," that tells me - that person wants to be a writer.

Why is writing important for education majors?

Writing is probably our second most important tool. Our most important tool as teachers is what we say to students. Writing follows

What sorts of writing should professional educators be familiar with?

We write comments on students' papers that extend our teaching. We write instructional materials for students. We construct lesson plans so that they make sense to us, and we have to share those lesson plans with either our administrator or with parents. We write for newsletters, we send information home, we write anecdotal records. We write educational articles for parents. We write for administrators to let them know what we're doing in our classrooms. If we happen to move to an administrative post in education we write all the time. We're writing for a community audience, we're writing for newspapers, we're writing for accrediting agencies. We write for each other. If you are an English major, for example, you not only have to be able to assign compositions, you need to be able to write them. You need to understand what you're looking for as you grade and then be able to defend that. The kinds of writings we are asked to produce are as broad as possible. When a student comes to Butler and says, "I want to be a teacher," that tells me - that person wants to be a writer.

What is the cost of imperfect writing?

Heaven help us if we as teachers send something out with a misspelling. Or we send something out where we used a colon inappropriately. We could lose our jobs. I mean, it's that simple. If I send home things that are grammatically incorrect and parents start calling and I'm within those first three years as a teacher, I will lose my job.

How do you deal with negative feedback?

Sometimes the first thing to do is take a deep breath and walk away for a minute. And then to say, "Okay, what was I trying to do here? Let me reread." Rereading is important, and so is the power of imagination, sitting in that other person's place and saying, "Okay, I know what I meant, but what did he hear?" And being able to take that position of a parent who got this letter at home - or of the principal who read this lesson plan - instead of taking offense I have to learn how to take the role of that audience, and then to make adjustments accordingly.

So audience is pretty important.

Oh yes. I don't see how a person writes well in the darkness. You have to have somebody for whom you're writing.

What common errors should we look out for?

You have writers who write too little, and you have writers who write too much. Neither is very good because they're not thinking about their purpose or their audience. There's a wonderful quotation by Frank Smith: "A writer must write with the eyes of a reader and read with the eyes of a writer." If we can get students - and I'm not just talking education majors, but all majors - to play both roles as a reader and a writer it will completely change how they think. Writers need to be considerate of their readers in choosing what they write, and how much they write, based on their readers' needs and purposes.

The other big picture error is that last editing. Making sure that the words are spelled correctly. Making sure that punctuation is used correctly. Making sure that pronouns fit antecedents. And just all those kind of basic things that aren't really so basic. Having to read with that eye of an editor is a very difficult task.

How do you acquire that skill?

Having a good style manual and a good dictionary next to you is a given. But that said, there are some tricks to play. One, if I have something that I'm editing, I cover everything else up but the first sentence so that my eye doesn't get into its normal reading speed. And I take a look at that. And I go through sentence by sentence and say, "Do I have a compound sentence here? Do I need a comma before the conjunction?" Now, it's easier to edit someone else's paper rather than your own. So oftentimes getting some practice with other people's papers and helping each other read is really useful. When I was a classroom teacher, for any letter home, I had somebody else read it before I sent it just to make sure I didn't say anything stupid, or forget something.

What do you do if you disagree with MS Word's grammar check?

That's where having that good style manual next to you is helpful. Rules are always changing. Style manuals are always changing. So if you know why you're doing what you're doing, and your writerly impulse says, "No, this is it," go with it. But if the grammar check and the style manual are both telling you the same thing, and you start seeing flags going up, then I think you need to do a little study to discover what really is true on this grammatical point.

How will learning good writing habits help in the long run?

Writing is many things. Writing is utilitarian. It's creative. It's information for ourselves. In essence, writing is thinking. Writing helps clarify one's thinking, and I think that then translates into more clarity in what we say and how we teach.