I teach a course for freshmen and sophomores titled Ideas and Culture, a core requirement in our general education sequence.  One of the goals of this course is to help students develop their ability to write clear and thoughtful prose, and students are required to do several essays in response to given prompts that are related to their reading.  As one who values good writing and believes that it is both the result of good thinking and the means by which good thinking is developed, I became somewhat frustrated with the preponderance of shallow, undeveloped, and unthoughtful essays I had to read each semester.  What to do?  Naturally, I give students advice, encouragement, criticism, and even good examples of previous essays.  While this was not wasted time or energy, I was still not happy with the quality of writing in this course.  What else to do?

It struck me that perhaps students needed a different kind of example of writing, one that I could supply.  My notion was not simply to write a better essay on the same topic I had assigned them.   (“Sure,” they would say, “he has a Ph.D. and has taught this course for a hundred years; he ought to be able to write better essays than we students do.”)  What I came up with was a different kind of sample, one that attempted to show students how to think about their writing as they were writing.  This exercise in metacognition was one that had good results.  Here is the essay I gave them:  

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Good writing is good thinking. [Hmmm…I wanted to write a short essay on writing to help my students reflect on the essay writing process, and here I am thinking that a short, strong sentence might be a good way to start.  Of course, I sometimes use my introduction to build up to my thesis more gradually and then end the introductory paragraph with the thesis statement itself.  Now, I guess I should develop my thesis. Maybe it will work if I begin with an entirely new paragraph so that my direct opening thesis sentence will have more punch, standing all alone as the opening paragraph.]

How can I convince you, dear reader, that what I say is true?  [Should I actually say this or simply begin the task of doing it?  Well, let’s see how it works since I know I am going to revise once I finish my essay.]  A former teacher of mine, quite a good writer herself, once observed:  “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?”  That thought is a bit confusing, perhaps, but I think she meant that the very act of writing is the way she could formulate, express, and then review some less well-formed idea that had been floating around in her head. For her, writing was the way she clarified her thoughts.   [Gee, that sounds pretty good!  I like the way my final sentence connects to my opening thesis sentence.]

Because, as I am planning to prove, good writing is good thinking, her statement makes perfect sense to me.  [Should I be writing this in first person?  I think that works better than third person for this kind of essay since my objective is to persuade my readers of a certain claim, concept, or thesis.  Besides, this is not the kind of argument that requires a lot of research support and documentation.  I can argue more personally from the first person perspective and connect with my readers in a more informal way.] 

Anyone who wants to think clearly should work at writing clearly—and vice versa.  But is it important to think and write clearly?  Indeed it is.  [Okay, I think this sets up my essay well enough, but now I am going to have to develop some sub-arguments to make a convincing case.  I probably will need three or four, depending on how long this essay ought to be and depending on how many good reasons I can come up with!]

In the first place, education at all levels—and certainly in any liberal arts college—should help students develop precise, logical, and accurate thoughts.  The world is a complex place, and in the “information age” we are bombarded with so many conflicting and confusing ideas it is a challenge to be analytical and reflective.  Writing is just such a means to make that process possible.  [Is this a convincing reason to support my thesis?  Maybe I should elaborate in a follow-up paragraph.]

The outside world may expect graduates, no matter how competent they may be, to be able to think clearly and express those thoughts well in writing, but the outside world is not going to teach them how to do that.  That is the golden opportunity students have in the classroom, and it is an opportunity they should cherish—painful as that process sometimes is.  [So, I have developed one sub-argument to support my thesis; it might be useful here for me to come up with an example, something to illustrate or support my contention.]  For example, I remember a student who came back after graduating from Converse and proceeded to tell me about the demands of the business world.  She said, “my boss doesn’t like my reports and keeps sending them back to me.  He says they have to be better—but he never tells me how to do that!  I wish I had developed my writing skills more fully when I was at Converse.” [This example works pretty well, I think.  Let me move on to my second sub-argument.]

[I guess I could go on to develop more sub-arguments and find a way to support each—but I think this is enough to make my point.  I will certainly want to have a strong and interesting conclusion—and not just a summary.  First, though, I need to eliminate all of these metacognitive passages in brackets—metacognition is just the act of thinking about thinking—so I can see what it is I have finally put on paper.  I hope it is clear, interesting, persuasive, and (most importantly) thoughtful.  When I revise, I will work on those qualities for this essay.  After all:  Good writing is good thinking.]

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After giving this essay on writing the essay to my class and discussing my thought process, I found that indeed the essays they wrote next were more thoughtful, logical, and planned.  My sense is that most students don’t think about their writing while they are writing but rather just plunge on word after word, sentence after sentence, and paragraph after paragraph until they have said all they can say on the topic.  At the very least, I am sure that students appreciated the effort that one professor was willing to make to reveal something of his own thinking processes which were, after all, not really all that different from their own—if they had only made themselves think about how best to express their ideas in an essay. 

–Tom McDaniel, Senior Vice President & Professor, Education, Converse College, SC

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