This page is constantly applicable and, to me, enlightening.  The term “novice writer” here means one who is encountering some challenging intellectual task for the first time.  When students come to college, we deliberately put them in the position of being “novice writers” in this sense; as they continue to be exposed to a range of different disciplines, e.g. in Gen Ed courses, they are novices yet again. Students who are no longer novices in their majors can still be “novice writers” in other fields.

The news here is that crappy writing may be a sign that we’re succeeding: we’re doing our job, by challenging our students. The further good news is that the said crappy writing should be temporary, and that the way to make it go away may well be to teach, not “basic skills,” but the interesting subject we want to teach: the way to think in our discipline.





by Greg Colomb, University of Chicago


*  They Lose Basic Skills.


Novice writers will often lose their grip on so-called “basic skills” so that they appear to be “basic writers” who cannot spell, punctuate, or produce correct syntax.  Once they gain some mastery over the overall conceptual task, they regain command over basic skills.


*  They Fail to Elaborate.


Novice writers will often fail to elaborate points and evidence in ways that make their texts seem to be mere outlines and make them appear to be unthinking or lazy.  Once they acquire a larger conceptual scheme for their points, they begin to understand why the points matter and how their evidence supports the points.


*  They Are Tyrannized by the Assignment.


Novice writers will often follow assignments or models slavishly, restating the assignment as the introduction to their text and taking up topics or questions in precisely the order in which they occur in the text of the assignment or in their model.  Once they begin to understand why anyone would give them such an assignment, they regain the conceptual freedom to restructure their assignments and make their texts their own.  Once they begin to understand the rationale behind the models, they can begin to use the models to serve their own goals.


*  They Are Tyrannized by the Concrete.


Novice writers will often need to summarize (i.e., “concretize”) the assigned text or procedure by reproducing the text or procedure in their own text.  Only then, if at all, can they move on to the more abstract understanding that analysis requires.  Once they have enough experience, they can begin to reach an abstract understanding (analysis) without going through the step of concretely reproducing (summarizing) the material.

last updated March 2011


You can download this as a Word document here: Characteristics of Novice Writers

You can download this as a PDF here: Characteristics of Novice Writers (PDF)