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How to Look like a Writer

posted: 6.28.11 by Traci Gardner

Earlier254235420_f116752ea0_m this month, Virginia Tech’s campus newspaper, the Collegiate Times, published a piece on how to “Blend in to avoid looking like the typical freshman.” The list includes advice like don’t wear your student ID in a lanyard around your neck and don’t ride your bike around the Drill Field the wrong way.

There are thousands of essays that use the same “what not to do” structure. In a quick Google search, I found an article on Things not to do (on a unicycle), What not to do in Japan (from CNN), and a What not to do on social media (from ClickZ,with a tie-in to Anthony Wiener’s online behavior). If you want a video example, you can always sample something from the Learning Channel’s What Not to Wear.

These “what not to do” texts are frequently humorous, poking fun at people who do the wrong things. The incoming Virginia Tech students are warned not to “travel in massive herds,” for instance, and the unicycle photos are introduced as “humorous photos of things that are not advisable to do on, with or near unicycles.”

The genre does not require humor, however. The CNN tips for travelers to Japan focus on straightforward advice, pairing things not to do with wiser alternatives. Likewise, the ClickZ article pairs dos and don’ts as it discusses how to avoid social media disasters and what to do when the inevitable happens.

So what does this have to do with looking like a writer? When I read the article on blending in as a freshman, I thought about how students work to look like writers in the writing classroom. Immediately I recalled the video Andrea Lunsford shared earlier this year of a student who was working to “‘invent the university’ for herself” by trying on the props and language of a writer. Students obviously know a few things about what to do and what not to do to look like a writer. The “what not to do” structure can be the basis for sharing that information.

As I’ve written before, I like to begin the semester with assignments that help me learn about students’ background as writers. I’m now adding the option to compose a text on “what not to do” if you want to look like a writer. To help narrow the focus, I have a list of options, all beginning with “What not to do” and all ending with “if you want to look like a writer”:

  1. in the computer lab
  2. when you format your text
  3. in the writing center (or with a tutor)
  4. when you’re writing in your journal
  5. at the library when conducting research
  6. when using your handbook
  7. as you read a text
  8. when you are working on a draft
  9. in a conference with your teacher
  10. if your paper is due tomorrow

A student choosing a specific writing topic from the list, for instance, could compose a text on “What not to do in the computer lab if you want to look like a writer.”

The format of students’ texts can borrow from any of the examples I’ve referred to—a humorous informal list, don’ts with matching dos, or an illustrated list. They can even try a video like What Not to Wear. The assignment can be wide enough to allow for positive options as well—students can write about “what to do” to look like a writer if they want.

The assignment will not only yield a bit about the students you are working with but can also provide some advice to share with students in the future. Why not make students the experts and ask them to present some of the tips they have compiled? The lists of “what not to do” may also offer the chance to discuss myths and misconceptions about writing.

In her blog post on Inventing the University, One Student at a Time, Andrea Lunsford says, “I hope that the classes I teach . . . help students imagine themselves as writers and as ‘smart’ students.” That’s my goal for this assignment as well. After all, when a student figures out how to look like a writer, when she starts thinking of herself as a writer, she’s well on her way to improving her writing.

[Photo: Hard At Work: 26/09/06 by kiwanja, on Flickr]

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Categories: Teaching with Technology, Writing Process
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