Matt Smith

Did you plan it?

Getting to grips with student compositions


Lately I’ve been checking Master’s theses for my colleagues at the university. And never has it been more apparent that the greatest problem the Thais seem to have with their composition is their failure to logically organise their ideas. Indeed, it is often very difficult for me to fix up their writing because things are so extraordinarily haphazard I can’t get a basic grip on what it is they’re trying to say; working with my colleagues, however, I have invariably noticed of late that what they’re trying to get out on paper is usually actually quite reasonable, and that if you ask the right questions it seems that in their own minds at least they had everything in place. The problem obviously being, of course, that something goes wrong between the ideas their brain is cooking up and the way those ideas are coming out in writing.

In fact, to say that it is difficult to fix their work up is somewhat of an understatement; it would be truer to say that it is an excruciating process, one that is often impossible unless you have the author on hand to provide a bit of interpretation. The way I have to go about it is like this; I have to do a bit of reverse engineering of the writing process they should have used to produce their composition, and by sifting through what they give me one by one identify what are decipherable points they’re trying to make, or statements that are obviously something they’re trying to say. These, I write down in point form, or on a linear diagram, like I say, of the type that should have been the precursor of their work. Then, I get them to translate the rest into similar sorts of direct statements that I can add to the plan. In this way, or with a bit of re-sequencing, it is usually possible to figure out what the correct juxtaposition of the things they’re trying to get out actually is, and thus what amongst what’s there actually fits and what should really be discarded. And, to make a simple restatement of what they had that, now that it’s in a set of discreetly partitioned, logically ordered and handle-able components, provides a digestible rendition of, because it is at the heart of it nothing but their own ideas I’m dealing with, whatever it was that they were initially trying to say.

The point I’m trying to make is, their ideas are there, and because once decoded they do fit together logically the chances are that that’s the way they started out; furthermore, because discreet statements of them can be sifted out from their work, they are capable of making individual statements of the elements of what it is they’re trying to say. And, I believe, if they just did this before they started writing, or wrote down their ideas on a rough plan and, without worrying yet with what should go in between, gave them a rough order, it would first of all be a lot easier for them to get the basics of the more complex sentences they’re later going to make (because when I press my colleagues and students what it is they’re trying to say in parts, or if they just concentrate on single concepts, they can invariably render them fairly intelligibly); in addition, it would provide a clearer clue as to the sort of language they’re going to need to join them all together. I’m sure you’ve all done the sort of activity with your students where you give them a plan of ideas, or a set of statements, that together will make a paragraph, and give them a set of transition words and phrases that they can pick from to join them all together; they never seem to have any problem with this, and because they can, as I just said, also come up with the necessary statements of their own volition to compose such a plan there shouldn’t be any reason why they couldn’t come up with decent paragraphs themselves. Bit by bit they can come at; it seems to be trying to do it all at once that completely throws them off track.

Which isn’t an original argument by any means; I don’t know about you, but my abilities to write were, to begin with, both explicitly and indirectly guided by the writing process. In other words, I was always made to go through the writing process as a kid at school, and, while I got it fairly much internalised while things stayed simple, again as my compositions became a lot more complex at university; when it comes to really complex things, I still find mapping my ideas out on paper before I begin writing to be an indispensable aid to getting things together smoothly. Also, I was taken through the logical processes that linear rhetoric reflects again and again in solving mathematics problems and in science class; this is what I mean by being indirectly conditioned to adopt a logical schematic for the unfolding of my ideas. To produce good English composition, that is to say, it’s fairly standard practice to teach people to plan and organise their ideas before they begin writing a rough draft, I’m not too sure you can do it automatically until you’ve had a bit of practice doing it externally on paper. Which reminds me of a couple of things I was reading not so long ago – firstly, I was reading where one of the scientists in that book Science At The Edge was saying very sensibly how it is very interesting the way the brain’s internal computations spill out on paper when it comes to doing stuff like long division and multiplication, or how writing and symbols become mechanical augments to our powers of calculation. This could certainly be said to be true, if you’re with what I’ve been saying here, of the plan of ideas you make before you begin writing. Secondly, I was reading how idiot savants have apparently devoted so much of their brain space to performing calculations that are normally so complex that we need to grapple with them on paper that cogs and wheels have been formed within the mind that that eventually allow them to dispense with these accoutrements, and thus perform what seem to be true miracles. In this case it would explain how a bit of practice of the writing process or the stuff that subtly parallels the writing process in other disciplines would leave you able to churn out compositions without their being apparent a need for ever having thought about a writing process in the first place. Or, more to the point, would, if you’re trying to churn out stuff but aren’t succeeding, suggest that such practice most certainly wouldn’t go astray.

Which brings me to the main point I’m trying to make here, or what has gone through my mind much of late as I dismantle and rebuild my colleagues’ theses; if the Thais (and I shouldn’t pick on them because my Korean students were, and the Chinese students I also teach no on the international program here are, just as bad) were in the habit of planning before they wrote, or went through the writing process that what they’ve written allows us to in retrospect quite easily create, their stuff would be a heck of a lot better from the outset. Thus leading to the next question I’ve been onto of late – do you guys know anything about the writing process, and indeed, it being previously unfeasible for me to consider otherwise, are you in the habit of using it when you write stuff in your own language? What I’ve discovered is that no-one I’ve spoken to thus far has given an ‘aye’ to either of those inquiries; they’ve never practiced much writing at all, which is very different to the way the native-speaker’s abilities are cultivated, let alone studied the writing process, and they haven’t used it and don’t use it when they write stuff in their own language either. Which isn’t to say it hasn’t been a part of their education, I’m dubious about how much of what they’re taught a lot of people in my society can remember later either!

Anyway, I’m an English teacher of the opinion that coming to terms with the writing process is an essential part of any composition course, or that providing a knowledge of and an ability to go through it is an essential prerogative of any English major; I think there are a lot of advantages for anyone to be gained from considering what it is about. And I’ve always found in teaching it that it allows one to confer a lot of necessary skills, like a better understanding of how punctuation works (important for people, like the Thais, whose language lacks any such mechanism) in dividing ideas into logical, process-able chunks, a better understanding of how to use the aforementioned transition words and phrases, and a better understanding of the relation ship of thesis statements to topic sentences, and topic sentences to the content of paragraphs, onto the students. So, in short, I’ve been getting right into it of late – I don’t think I have to look too far to find agreement that screwed up grammar setting forth a logical sequence of ideas is far preferable to screwed up grammar that convolutes something that is already inscrutable at the conceptual level. Like I say to my students, even if you have to resort to saying one idea in one sentence, or render what you come up with on your plan into a repetitive series of very simple statements, this is far preferable to going for the intellectual points with complex sentences that I can’t make head nor tail of because of the way the ideas in them have been so mysteriously strung together. Or so I reckon at any rate, you of course, as per usual, are welcome to your own opinion.




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