The biggest thing I’ve learned from teaching a first year seminar is how freshman writing differs from upper class writing. Today I handed back the second formal paper my students have written and here is what I told them:
The biggest flaw I saw in your papers, from the best paper to the worst, is that you didn’t develop your ideas enough; you didn’t think more deeply about your topic. How does one bake bread? Answer: Mix and knead the ingredients, let the dough rise, bake and enjoy! How does one make wine? Answer: Crush the grapes, add yeast, let it age, drink and enjoy! Writing is like baking bread or making wine. After you start it, you need to put it aside to give it time to mature, rise, age.
First year writers tend to put their thoughts down and be done with it. That may be all they know. They don’t seem to understand that writing is a creative process; a writer doesn’t write what they already know; rather the process of writing/thinking creates new insights which the writer can discover through the composition process. Of course this takes patience, as well as planning so that one doesn’t wait until the night before the assignment is due to start.
If one doesn’t know that the process is productive, it may not make sense to wait before putting the paper to bed. We need to explain this to students as explicitly as we can, especially when we are teaching first year students. I certainly never learned this in high school or frankly, in college, so we shouldn’t expect first years to know this.