George Mason University vertical bar Valuing Written Accents: Non-Native Writers in the U.S. Academy

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Definitions of Good Writing

When non-native students come to study in the U.S., they encounter not only different expectations for them as academic writers but also very different attitudes about the role of writing as an important vehicle for learning and explaining what one has learned.  Students often described these differing attitudes about writing and learning that are prevalent in their native countries, how they have had to adjust to academic expectations here, and the anxieties many of them feel about succeeding as writers in this new environment where “good” writing often looks very different from what they have learned to produce in their native countries.

~On what characterizes “good writing” in the US academy:
Good writing, first of all, is grammar responsible writing. Well-structured writing as well. Good flow of the thought or argument. And then, having your own voice about it. When you ultimately succeed in writing when you have your own accent, I call it. When you speak to me and hear my accent, it reflects where I come from. Well, I want my writing to be reflected in that way too. That to me is good writing. Having your accent as well as being grammar conscious and being conscious of the rules of writing.

~On instructors’ definitions of “good writing” in the US and Bulgarian academies:
Well, first of all, yeah, it was being conscious about grammar and being able to write properly. And of course I grew up in an era where there was no way to check your spelling so that was emphasized a lot. And being, the more sophisticated you sound, the better. It is about the use of the language. How you’re going to use the phrases and how you’re going to structure your sentences to make it more colorful, more abstract, more like a piece of art rather than writing as opposed to writing, just expressing an argument.

~One of the things that I was taught to be a good example of writing was long sentences. While here short clear sentences, that was a thing I learned here. So short clarity is a thing…clarity, straight-forwardness and being able to ultimately be understood by your audience. Because you’re writing for a specific audience. The audience wasn’t stressed much in Bulgaria but it’s stressed a lot here. Apart from the ordinary rules and regulations in writing.

~On “ good writing”  in the Government discipline:
Mostly, it is content. I would have to say that. Content comes first before structure so before I start writing, it is all about your evidence, all about your content and mostly, that is what teachers look at. What’s your argument, have you supported your argument. Then comes structure. However, I have come to realize that if you don’t get a good structure, if you don’t structure your evidence right, you won’t get your argument write. Just because by structuring your evidence, you kinda see where you have gaps in your evidence so you can fill them and give better evidence to support your argument. I’m a very visual person so when I have it on paper and I see where it doesn’t fit or where there is no transition between the evidence and my argument, it’s easier to fit it, to fit the evidence in. Of course sloppy writing is always penalized but you have to have a good structure for the sake of your argument. It’s how you show what you know, in how you connect, how you analyze, how you think. Writing is the only way in my major.

~So good writing, if I look at it technically I look at if it’s grammatically correct and I’m not sure if I can distinguish if it’s a good writing or if it’s sloppily written. But for me good writing is a little bit different: it’s the meaning behind it. And good writing, it’s culturally…it’s a loaded question. But what’s good writing here can be completely nonsense in my country. It is, to a certain extent. If I take an essay that an American, a student and show it to a professor, in my home country they would say ‘what is this? This is not academic writing. This is someone’s personal view? I don’t care what that person’s personal view is. This is not what I have taught.’

~So good writing depends on where you come from. I basically think the context from which you look at it, the appreciation. There are basic things which are universally common like the grammar, the structure. But beyond that, it’s the norms and the way you think.

~What I’m struck by is that what’s considered good writing here [in U.S.] is not considered good writing back home. I would sometimes take back my papers and show it to my old professors, things I’ve gotten As on in class and they would beat on it and say “this aspect was not analyzed,” not in terms of structure or grammar, but in terms of content: “this aspect is not analyzed very well or this has not been brought out. The analysis of this is shallow or mediocre.” While here they would say “oh this is marvelous. You’ve got a wonderful bibliography, you’ve done extensive research.” In terms of what is good, people here are struck by—and I’m sure this is true for a lot of international students—people are struck by the comfort level you have with a second language. English is not my first language. The comfort and the level of writing has been considered good.

~Particularly academic writing [in Sri Lankan academy] is more objective. Not so subjective; you don’t bring your personal opinion. People don’t care about your personal opinion; you just analyze the data in a more clinical fashion back home. You write in the third person, you never insert “I” into an academic piece. Ever. You’d always write in the third person. It wouldn’t be appropriate.

~Writing experiences would be different if you knew only one language. So I’m sure the strengths and weaknesses of writing and reading and speaking in many languages, people only think it’s a strength, but it might be a weakness. I’m sure there’s a weakness. If you only had one language to focus and master and command the depth and breadth of— perhaps, I don’t know, perhaps not—that would be completely different. But at the same time, if I didn’t have a second or third language, I wouldn’t read other things written in a different language and be able to understand, and those things enrich your reading and writing and your thinking, obviously. Every single language, you know, how much more richer our experiences would be. Just as much as it has its pitfalls, I’m sure it nourishes my writing and thinking.

~On what characterizes “good writing” in the U.S. academy:

~[Besides thesis and good structure], I would say, if you are given a topic, the more you read about it, and the more research you do about it, the more it broadens your vision.  And I really enjoy that.  I really enjoy that everything is so new to me. Because most of the topic they have give us, I never have done research on them.  So I really enjoy doing research on them.  I get so excited.  I’m like, “okay, I am going to learn something new today.” So if I am a given more time, I would go ahead and read more books and collect the information, then get the idea, and then put it down.  And it feels so light when I have done my research properly and then I write something down.  I just feel so good.

~The three Cs:  Complete, concise and clarity.  And, the thesis statement I would say.  Also, the conclusion was really helpful.  My tenses, they kind of really shift from past to present.  This is what I really am bad at because obviously when am I thinking in my native language and then when I put that in English you know I somehow shift the past and present tense.  Because I always think in my own language.  Okay, this is the sentence and then I translate it into English.  And I have to think of words; I get stuck on the words; I knew the word in Urdu, so what should I put here?

~On what characterizes “good writing” in Chinese and in English:  
I think if it’s creative writing, beautiful language could be a very important component—very fresh, original, maybe some very vivid metaphors.  But for academic writing, factual accuracy would be the most important thing.  And holding a neutral point of view.

~When I write in Chinese, I basically focus on creative writing.  At that moment, first the structure should be good, which means you’re to the point and you have this very clear theme.  And second is the language and the grammar.  Grammar is supposed to at least be correct, and language is supposed to have some variety and be beautiful.  Oh, and I forgot—you have to have an idea.  The idea is actually the most important thing.

~In English right now for my academic writing, the most important thing is first that you have an original idea.  The second thing is the language.  It should be correct grammatically, and it should let them read comfortably.

~On what her teachers defined as good writing in Columbia:
To be original, creative… Reference, then develop the idea based on the idea of
someone else and cite it, and, they said, do not use many words to describe one single
event, but then use different examples. And not too many adjective, I guess, but the “don’t use many adjectives,” it’s different than here. In Spanish maybe we area allowed to use more even if they say we don’t have to use them.

~On what her teachers defined as good writing in the U.S. academy:
Very very precise.  Very very organized.  Develop the ideas, have an outline of what you want to draw, to explain, and get your ideas specific, and develop them; do not jump from one paragraph to another. If something concerns an idea, it should be in that paragraph and not in another, that kind of thing.

~Now, I have to write a lot and my professors have been very nice to give me feedback. There was one of the professors who actually wrote: very good analysis but you should check your grammar.