By Anna Dean
“I want my writing to sound more American.” As a writing consultant, how often have I heard this request? One practice consultants commonly employ in session is to have the student read their writing aloud, which, in theory, should help them tap into their innate sense of what “sounds right” and what “sounds awkward.” This may often (though not always) work with native speakers, but with multilingual writers, success depends largely on where they are in the language development process. In these cases, student writers generally hope that the consultant will pick up on those “awkward” turns of phrase for them. But what exactly does it mean to “sound more American”? What rhetorical features characterize “American writing”? Is there even such a thing as “American writing”, considering the many sub-groups of American culture? Which rhetorical features are more “American-sounding”? And why should we care? It all ties back to cultural values.
When we consider culture, we often think of more obvious manifestations of it: food, traditions, language, etc. But we do not always think of what kind of impact cultural values might have on writing conventions. Consider differing views of respect and indirectness across cultures and how those might play out in writing. A writer from Saudi Arabia, for instance, might avoid stating ideas too explicitly, considering this an insult to their readers’ intelligence. A U.S. academic audience, on the other hand, would expect a more explicit approach, as respect involves saving readers time and effort. Similarly, a writer from France, whose culture is steeped in formality and indirectness, might begin their essay with a broad context and gradually take readers through their reasoning before offering an argument, while a U.S. academic audience tends to be accustomed to a linear, thesis-first organization. And on top of these broader distinctions, writers need to consider the fine-grained genre conventions associated with the values of different discourse communities.
Given this understanding of cultural values and writing, how can we apply these considerations in session? The same way we discuss genre—by explaining why we do what we do in a specific writing context. In my practice both as an ESL writing instructor and as a writing consultant, I have been trying to frame written conventions as culturally-based, rather than imposing what may seem like an arbitrary norm on student writers.
Take my session with Cate (pseudonym) as an example. Cate, who is of Chinese language background, speaking both a regional dialect and Mandarin, came in with a short, one-page response paper wanting feedback on clarity and grammar. In terms of accuracy, there were few errors in her writing. But I noticed her sentences felt what many native speakers would call “awkward”: they often began with abstract nouns, used passive constructions, and left more concrete nouns to the end. This pattern repeated itself at the paragraph level; Cate started with a general statement and did not get to the core of her point until the end of each paragraph. Rather than say “this is unclear,” I instead told her what I had noticed, and I explained how professors in this university context tend to value directness and how this value plays out in writing conventions as a focus on actions and agents. I then asked her what value she thought informed her own writing, and she explained that, in her culture, indirectness is preferred and it is common to prioritize abstract concepts. I emphasized that both sets of cultural values and written norms are equally valid and valuable, but that she needed to think of how her audience here would receive her writing. From there, we practiced refocusing her sentences and paragraphs, and by the end, Cate could clearly articulate the reasoning behind her changes.
Perhaps the result of this approach is no different than a session in which cultural values had not been brought up. But I like to think that it made a difference in not just her understanding of the audience, but also in her own sense of pride in her native culture. When we, as consultants, comment that an aspect of a student’s writing seems unclear, we may inadvertently place cultural norms in a hierarchy, with U.S. academic standards at the apex. The message could be one of subtle cultural erasure.
So how do we move forward from here? I am not accusing all writing consultants of cultural insensitivity. I am not suggesting we dismantle the way we approach sessions. Nor am I claiming that the only students affected by these issues are international students. There are many ways consultants already negotiate these concerns, and there are many different manifestations of “culture.” For example, how do factors such as socioeconomic status play into the complexity of understanding writing norms? How do written genres manifest the values of their relevant disciplines? There is no clear answer. I am simply offering an addition to our toolbox. Cultural values are the lens through which we understand what “sounds right”; the U.S. academic way is not the only way. Let’s let student writers in on that secret.
Published April 22, 2019