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

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Structure

Our informants often commented on a lack of emphasis on structure when writing in their native languages; some learned about formats and conventions for academic writing in English for the first time when they were studying for the TOEFL or GRE exams. As students in the U.S., however, all recognized the heavy emphasis their teachers place on thesis, clear organization, and concise language and contrasted this with the “natural” or unstructured way of writing they were used to in their native countries.

Karimatu:
~When you are writing an essay you don’t go following some certain rules or regulations whereby you have to have introduction, thesis, conclusion, body. In Hausa you don’t have to do all that.  What is more important is the ideas that you are putting on the paper, that is what is more important.  It is not a very structured, in the sense of you are trying to make it smooth, you know, coherent.  Just like when our politicians are on TV, they don’t go around the point; they go straight to it.  They don’t go like, “Nigeria is a rich country, we are trying to…” No.  They just go straight to the point.  “The problem in Nigeria is corruption; people are taking the money; the poor are suffering.”  They don’t go and try to …

Tonka:
~Other than instruction about how to write and how to structure your paper, the whole process of writing is given much more importance here than in Bulgaria where teaching writing ends with sentence structure and punctuation and not a lot of emphasis on structure.

~Of course there is introduction and thesis and body part and conclusion, but it’s not explained, it’s not as elaborated on as it is over here in the United States. Here writing is really, I guess it’s harder to write concisely.  That’s why we pay so much attention to writing; instructors here pay so much attention to writing and there are books written and whole manuals on how to write, whereas in Bulgaria, there’s a lot of freedom on how to approach a topic.

~Don’t wait until the last moment to write your paper and submit it, because most of the time it’s going to be a raw version of your thoughts, inconsistent in a way; you won’t be able to see the gaps that you have. Maybe your first draft will be brainstorming your ideas and putting all the information that you have. And then the second draft will be organizing them so you can fill in the gaps. It’s all about making your argument valid.

~I started reading in English and I saw how professors started expecting me to write. So reading in English was a lot, a lot of help in getting the point; get to your point; state your point and support it instead of lead me to your point. So it was a lot of impact. I was struggling with that. But with the reading, it all came into place now.

Diana:
~Here it’s very structured and very organized and sometimes I think that too much structure maybe don’t allow students to think really, because everything is on the paper and you have to follow it. And sometimes I feel like, “stop it,” I want to do something else but I can’t because it’s off of the rubric.  But they’re very organized here and they have everything written and everything’s described as you have to do it and what you should do: set page limits, and points for your grammar, and points for the rules, and points for the creative ideas, and how many ideas do you have to add to your paper, and how many weaknesses and strengths do you have to mention.  It’s very, very, very specific.

~I guess that “specific” was not one of the words I should use to be like a good writer in Columbia, especially because you have to explain, and we explain and give examples.  The word that comes to my mind is very romantically and politically correct and long, long sentences, a lot of paragraphs, and give an idea and then bring it back in the next paragraph, and if something needs to be added, you can bring it in the last part of the essay; it’s not like organized or as structured as it is here; very philosophical, I guess.

~How it should be written is how you think.  That’s the difference, the main difference between writing in English and in Spanish; it’s not the grammar and just follow the structure and the subject and the verb and the complement.  That’s something that’s still the same thing in Spanish.  But the structured thinking and the process of how you think is the difference.  Because I can write something in English that it makes sense, like grammatically, but it has no sense here, because they have a different structure of thinking.

~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.

Ignacio:
~At first, I considered the paper as a chance to kind of show my knowledge of the language and how I mastered it.  Now, I see it as a way of making sure someone understands what you are saying. Tell me what you are going to tell me; tell me; then tell me what you told me.

~Usually, my process is first I do brainstorming.  I do the readings, a lot of readings, so I write a lot of quotes from the readings; then from these quotes I write the ideas I have got.  Then I make a scheme, and in the scheme I put all the arguments I want to use.  Then I start writing the paper presenting the arguments in the introduction, then developing them in the development with examples I find, then the conclusion repeating everything again.

~At first, I had a lot of troubles with [the format here], because I thought that the introduction was just like presentation of the topic with nothing else.  But then I found out that besides presenting the topic, you have to state already which are going to be your arguments throughout the paper.  Yeah, I found it pretty restricting at first, I felt like I was repeating myself all the time, by stating the thesis in the introduction, development and conclusion.  But now I am more at ease with it.

~In Spain, maybe we have a class a year or two in which they tell us we should start with an introduction, development, and conclusion, but that is about it.  Whereas here it is not only that, you have to say in the introduction what you are going to say, then you have to sort of link the introduction with the development with a final sentence, and you have to start development with a sentence, and you have to develop your thesis with an example, then finish introducing the other statement or argument, then wrapping up everything with the conclusion.  Here it’s very focused, more developed.

Kumiko:
~Good writing is not redundant and used simple words. The point the author wants to write is clear.

Hanyan:
~In China, it’s almost like English, but we have different thought.  Thesis is very obvious here, but in Chinese, we don’t write something so obviously; we like to allow the reader to think about it.  In China, I wrote short essays, but awkward parts are awkward to Americans, but Chinese understand because of culture. 

~In class, after coming to the U.S., I learned from ESL classes and ENG 101 classes logic; thesis in first paragraph to state opinion and you have to write topic sentences in each paragraph.  But in China, we don’t need to write obvious topic sentences in the beginning; if you understand what the author is saying, you can understand.  The main difference is that English is obvious.

Efrata: 
~Here, when I had the teacher in high school the last two years, she just gave us a lot of practice on how to write well.  Like we wrote a lot of essays on books that we read, like Crime and Punishment, and things like that.  They wanted us to analyze it, you know, and sometimes she would make me rewrite my thesis statement and introduction, and she would go paragraph by paragraph, and she would say “why did you use this word,” “why can’t you say it this way,” or “what were you trying to say.”  Just going over things helps a lot.  You have to question what you write and just write it. 

~I struggled with thesis statements.  You know, you want to have like three points or something like that you want to focus on, or three things and that is the main important part of your paper, because that is what you are going to be discussing.  So you have to have a strong thesis and that was really emphasized by my teacher.

Yoon:
~The first thing in Korean type of writing is we have to write the main thesis or main sentence at the end of the writing.  So the first thing we have to do is give some idea which is related to the main theme of the paper.  So for example, “women have to get freedom,” so we have to put the examples first.  And people think about the woman’s freedom and how it is developed and at the end of the paper we have to write my thesis of the paper is “this and this, and that is why I think this is this.”  But in America, you guys put the thesis sentence at the beginning of the paper so I put totally different style of the paper and the professor say “where are you from, how you get into the college?”

~I think American people are more straightforward.  Even in the classroom, somebody present in the classroom, they said “oh this is not good, this isn’t really good.”  But in Korea, they don’t really mention exactly what they think honestly, so even if it’s not that good, but “oh you did a good job.”  They all the time pointing the good thing, they don’t want to mention the bad thing, even though they think it in their mind.  The American people are more directly focused on “this is this,” so they ended up their conclusion too.  But in Korea, they don’t directly mention; it is a cultural thing.  Even in the personal relationship, they don’t directly say “I don’t like you because,” but American people are more honest.  Korean people, even boyfriend and girlfriend, they don’t mention what they think in honest, so at the end of relationship they say “I don’t like this, this, this…”

Sandarshi:
~Wordsworth and sonnets and things were taught to us when we were in first grade. So we were very different because we were a British colony.  It changed somewhat when I came here. The more free-for-all, free-form, fluid, personal views that are not so structured writing, are something that I face here. I had a much more rigorous structured writing experience growing up than my child has here. I find it too free-for-all. It’s not structured in a sense; you’re not taught the building blocks of writing and grammar – they are taught in a very different way.

~The general outline of a paper, the need to have an introduction, to have the middle and to have a conclusion and to make sure you cite your sources, was there in the back of your mind all the time, but I did not come from a practice of writing down every single point or bulleting things and saying I’m going to write this much on this paragraph. Everything was a bit more fluid. It kind of came out the way it came out after I had wrote. And also I would never start “this is my introduction.”  I don’t start saying here’s what my story’s going to be. Even with my personal writing, I don’t start saying this is the way my story is going to be…. I kind of keep the door open and let anything that passes through come in and is discovered. For me, writing is more about discovery than sitting with an idea and saying here’s what it’s going to be and here’s how I’m going to write it.

Kanishka:
~I think the emphasis here is you get to the point up front, which wasn’t the style I was used to, maybe because I wasn’t, I have to admit I wasn’t doing too much academic writing in Sri Lanka; it was either the law part or my past time which was creative writing.  I am used to a build up, you know building it up, leaving the suspense in the background and not until I pop it out to the person, and that is the way you tell stories.  Of course I had to depart from that, which I think makes sense, because if I am reading some published paper even, in the first few sentences, I look at, you know, what is this all about before I decide whether I am going to go through the rest of it. 

~In Sri Lanka, what they emphasized was mostly completeness; you had to tie up all ends by the time you finished.  It is that kind of structure more than organization itself; you should not leave anything unattended, you know whatever you mentioned early on…but besides that I am thinking they didn’t emphasize too much on you know what kind of…where you should have these different components of the essay.

~No, there wasn’t thesis in the beginning.  I think one thing similar if at all maybe emphasized is the conclusion.  That they say you have to try to catch everything, not in one sentence necessarily, but maybe in the concluding paragraph; you have refresh everyone what you are talking about. 

Malak:
~In Saudi Arabia, they are very different.  It’s using the words to draw a picture and it’s not like using the wording in its simple meaning. So you use the wording differently and using not less simple words or simple structures. It’s different than in English because in English it’s better to have more simple structure in English. Here, I’ve been told it’s better to have a little less complicated; don’t use three or four words, like I said, having a simple structure, cleanly writing the ideas that you have, right grammar, the structure having an introduction and conclusion.

Sri:
~Learning to structure writing has been challenging and that’s what I have struggled with when I joined the program here, because, you know, my essays didn’t have any kind of coherence when I started writing and it was like random thoughts and that’s my initial part of the struggle in the program.

~Here the writing is a lot different.  When you write an assignment, they look for critical thinking, they look for clarity, they look for a structure to the essay, and of course a lot, a lot of research.  One wonderful aspect of the school here is you can write whatever you want, as long as it makes sense.

Haifeng:
~There is some for-profit education institutions and they publish several books and these books tell you what kind of sentence is good for the GRE.  And there are several writing models of the North American students which got full score and we start to know.  And some publications, they just summarize the structure of the sentence to tell you that this is pretty acceptable to the English writers, and so we just try to do it that way.

~In China, before we start to write the paper, the professor already tell you how to write an academic paper: the parts with the introduction, background, the methodology.  He already told us how to do this from scratch. 

Cheryl:
~You know this recent blogging, I haven’t really done it. But I think that would be my thing, if I were to get into it, because I find that that kind of writing I can write easily. Maybe because psychologically I don’t have to worry about whether I’m doing the right thing, following the right structure, so I can just think, just write how I feel, or whatever the topic is talking about.

Ayesha:  
~In Pakistan, they used to say that when you are given a topic, you have to discuss the topic first and then write down your thoughts about it, but not the complete structure.  And they would give the first paragraph to describe the topic; they would write it down and “okay, memorize it.”  That’s the thing that I think is lacking there; they never let us use our own creativity, and if they do, I think they can improve a lot.

~On what to think about when writing a paper for the U.S. academy: 
The three Cs:  Complete, concise and clarity.  And the thesis statement, I would say.