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Writing Matters

One of the biggest challenges MLC students meet is a history paper they write for the course U.S History Since 1945, taught by Dr. David Schroeder DMLC ’85. “This paper is one of the great boogeymen on campus,” Schroeder says, “which is good in a way.”

It’s good because, for some students, it’s the first time they conference one-on-one with a teacher on their writing. It’s the first time some are compelled to clarify and economize, instead of simply fill pages. It’s the first time some master the mechanical nitty-gritty. It’s the first time some see such a high bar: to write a paper as perfect as they can make it.

It’s a process: prewriting, writing, revising, conferencing, re-revising, editing. It takes time and sweat from both prof and student, but it’s worth it, Schroeder says, because writing matters. “We’re in the communication business. If you’re coming to this college, you’re getting into the communication
business: written and spoken—and listening too.”

The Process

Schroeder uses a highly refined process to teach students how to write in a formal academic style. He applies this process to just one paper, but it’s enough to do the job. He explains:

Step 1: Expectation: “The process begins with cheerleading, motivation, encouragement. I tell them I expect a lot, but I’m going to work you through the process. It’s not an onerous amount of work, and if you play along, most of you will be successful.”

Step 2: Thesis: “Students choose a topic, not too wide in scope and not too narrow, and they write a modest proposal. I help them understand how to develop a historical construct.”

Step 3: First Draft: “I’m getting away from the term ‘rough draft.’ Now I call it a ‘relatively polished paper.’ I penalize them if they hand in something that’s total junk.”

Step 4: TA Reading: “My teaching assistant, Naomi Unnasch (St. Lucas-Milwaukee), does a first read. She comments on content (clarity, logic) and mechanics (grammar, punctuation) and returns papers that are unacceptable. Naomi is their peer, but at this point she knows it’s kinder to be their instructor than their friend.”

Step 5: Conference: “This is the heart of it—my 30-minute conference with each student. We start
with, ‘What did you do well?’ and ‘What do you want to improve?’ Some students have a hard time
articulating that.

“Regarding content, we work on precision of argument. We work on voice; for a paper, it needs to be academic and formal, not conversational. And we work hard on economy. You know, there’s that quote by Blaise Pascal: ‘I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter, but I didn’t have time to write you a short one.’ Students ramble. They think in terms of expanding their writing to fill six pages instead of condensing all their thoughts into only six pages. Instead of using lots of words to say not very much, they need to say much with very few words.

“And somewhere in this conference we talk about reasonable expectations. In many respects, their grade is their decision. If all they want is a C, and their relatively polished draft is a C paper, then all right, they’re done. It’s unfortunate, but it does happen sometimes. And sometimes I have to tell a student that, realistically, with their gifts, they can give me the best work they’ve ever done in their life, and it still won’t be an A paper. But that’s okay too. In general, I think teachers need to talk more about expectations.”

Step 6: Final Draft: “After the conference, the expectation is that then they can revise and edit their draft and hand in a polished paper.”

The Results

“The writing is improving,” Schroeder says, “The students are thinking more deeply, more critically.
And they say they’re grateful.”

In fact, 90% of students say the process was worth it, and many note they wish they had learned this sooner. “I attribute most (if not all) of my writing skill to Dr. Schroeder,” says preseminary student

Jason Zuehlke (St. Peter-Helenville WI), “how to do research, what type of grammar to use, and how important it is to have others proofread your work. Now I will be able to write papers for seminary, grad school, sermons, religion class materials. I can even use what I’ve learned while talking to others about my faith, providing clear and flowing ideas.”

Many students tell Schroeder they’ve never done this before. He admits it’s time-intensive and labor intensive, but it’s worth it, because writing matters.

“God chose to communicate with us through the written word, and much of our communication in
the public ministry is through the written word. Writing matters.

“As writing instructors, we have to expect more,” he says. “The students hear I’m a stickler. You don’t have to be unreasonable. You just need to expect quality.”