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Improve Your Students' Writing by Removing 'I' from Their Narratives

Improve Your Students' Writing by Removing 'I' from Their Narratives

Learn more about degree programs at American Public University.

By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management at American Public University

John McPhee, a well-known writer and journalism professor at Princeton University, published a book in 2017 called Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.

McPhee said, “The approach to structure in factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intended to cook for dinner. You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with.”

As a teacher of your discipline, do you ever ask yourself how to help your students write a paper that they can be proud of, one that meets the grading rubric? Do you teach them how to create a “grocery list” structure for their papers and what to do with that list? Structure in writing is what you need to teach your students as a coach and mentor.

How Do You Teach Writing in Your Online Classes?

Do you start by informing students how you grade and critique their papers? How do you make that initial contact and follow up with your students and their writing? Whatever this process is, it will affect your thinking about how much time you spend teaching your students how to write well versus simply creating a graded product that is turned in on schedule.

Some online schools require that student papers must be graded within a certain number of days following their submission. That time factor causes pressure for some teachers to complete 70 papers that came in on Sunday night, because on the next Sunday, another 70 papers will come in. You could grade 10 papers a day and be done in seven days, or grade 14 papers each weekday.

Do You Teach Real Writing or Do You Merely Grade Papers?

Experience shows me that numerous professors do not edit or offer writing guidance. This often leads to confusion when students encounter a professor who does care about good writing and goes out of his or her way to mentor students’ writing performance. How many times have you made constructive comments to a student, who then tells you that after five years of going to a university, you are the first teacher who has helped him understand how to write?

In classes, we force students to write. We give them specifics about the discipline of the course, layering the textbook content with real-world experience.

We ask students pointed questions about some current event or we ask them to research specific definitions of terms, hoping they will understand the “cut and paste” replies from sourced reports. This meets the academic assembly line of words that students produce on their computers.

Perhaps it is time to rethink how we advise our students who are faced with writing papers of 3,000 to 5,000 words in this Twitter age of concise writing.

As educators, we constantly conduct research about what keeps students engaged in a classroom or in a virtual, asynchronous online classroom. We hope to provide students with sufficient and clear instructions on how to write those weekly papers.

Eliminating the First Person Singular ‘I’ in Student Writing

The “I” appears repeatedly in most students’ writing. Students may use “I feel that…” or “I believe that this magazine article is….” in an academic paper. But that phrasing changes the focus of the paper to the student instead of the paper’s topic.

There may be some statements that students think are appropriate for the first-person singular, as in “I think that the author meant….” When they write that way, have them remove the “I” and write from the author’s viewpoints, such as “The author suggested that….”.

Often, this advice takes several weeks to sink in. Some students want to show off a bit about what they think or believe. Tell them to save their opinions for the forum discussion boards. There, they can tell or brag or gossip about themselves. It is expected and entirely appropriate there.

Novelist Richard Russo offers a fresh viewpoint on how to explain to students how to take themselves out of the story, but leave the writer intact. In his recent short story collection Trajectory, Russo explains that we should approach our students’ college papers, our short stories and our unpublished novels as if we were looking through a camera’s lens. He notes, “The writer disappears, just reports what the characters do and say without revealing their thoughts and motivations. No judgments. Totally objective.”

If students are still confused, tell them to read their papers one more time. If they find themselves part of the story with an “I” statement, they need to delete that statement and rewrite the sentence.

One more bit of writing advice comes from Natalie Goldberg, an author and speaker. One of her most impressive pieces of advice to teachers and students is: “The beginner’s mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write. There is no security, no assurance that because we wrote something good [sic] two months ago, we will do it again. Actually, every time we begin, we wonder how we ever did it before. Each time is a new journey with no maps.”

So tell your students to write and write, and write some more. If they are still unsure of the words on the paper, tell them you will be glad to review it before they turn it in for a grade.

As a professor, you must find a way for your student to reach out to you. Let them know that the “I” refers only to you as their writing coach and professor.

Learn more about degree programs at American Public University.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He is the former program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management, and Government Contracting. Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He has published two books, RFID Metrics and How Grandma Braided the Rain.



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