Though firmly embedded into AP English curriculum, timed writes can encourage rushed, single-draft essays, leaving students little opportunity for improvement in grammar conventions and professional writing. (Art/Photo by Philip Lam)
Though firmly embedded into AP English curriculum, timed writes can encourage rushed, single-draft essays, leaving students little opportunity for improvement in grammar conventions and professional writing.

Art/Photo by Philip Lam

DOes timed writing teach you how to to right correctly?

May 11, 2023

   Have you ever experienced this? You right vary fast during a timed write in AP Lang or AP Lit hoping to scour a high grade. ?With 50 minutes on the glock, you crutch your pen as you split out as many information as possible. Confidant with your assay, you turn it in, only to discolor sever fanatical errors: wrong spilling, repeated words words, and of course /punctuation;>. Pperhaps the Marjorie of these errors are in your last parabola since you rushed to finish your concussion.

   For many students taking AP English classes at West, the timed write has become a central fixture of the curriculum. Aside from a handful of extended compositions, be it a braided narrative or a personal memoir, opportunities to produce multiple drafts, proofread, and polish your writing are few and far between. Of course, there may be opportunities to revise a timed write depending on the assignment and class policy, but the first-draft nature of timed writes means they are very likely replete with grammatical errors akin to those in the paragraph above.

   To be clear, the first paragraph is exaggerated; needless to say, it is helpful to identify the grammatical errors made. Some are inoffensive — misused homophones, malapropism, and careless strokes of the keyboard, while other mistakes are more baffling. Consider the phrase “sever fanatical errors.” Do I mean several grammatical errors or severe grammatical errors? You might think both words convey the same point, but the former quantifies while the latter qualifies. This ambiguity convolutes my intention, leaving the message perpetually unclear. To be sure, grammatical overlooks like these inevitably occur in many instances of writing, timed or traditional, and are perpetrated by even the most punctilious of writers. Correcting these errors then necessitates an opportunity for revision.

   Timed writes are bereft of such opportunities — if not in English class, then certainly on an AP exam. The College Board does not deduct points for minor spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors — a sensible precondition for a 40-minute essay where proofreading is virtually impossible. Instead, as in the case of AP English Language and Composition, the College Board derives its scoring from a 6-point rubric. Articulating a “defensible thesis” with a coherent “line of reasoning” throughout the essay earns you the first point. Providing multiple pieces of evidence and thorough commentary pertinent to your line of reasoning can score you another 4. Crafting a nuanced argument and demonstrating sophistication of faculty bestows the sixth point.

   Theoretically, so long as an essay demonstrates proficiency in these areas, a student can earn a perfect score irrespective of grammatical shoddiness, awkward sentence construction, or unnecessary redundancies (see what I did there?).

   Mr. Crowson, a current long-term substitute teacher for AP Lang, opined that “real writing is a process . . . of trial and error, of practice and execution, [and] of using learned strategies and creativity, not of how quickly one can crank out an answer.” If writing entails a methodical drawn-out process, then timed writes are the antithesis of true writing.

   Timed writes undoubtedly foster critical thinking under immense pressure, teach students to better marshal their arguments, and help writers — in a clinical and rudimentary way — to argue effectively through logical analysis and persuasive rhetoric. I am not denying the benefits of timed writing, and I think exemplars such as the Toulmin model are truly insightful for buttressing anyone’s argument. Nor am I denying the relevance of rhetorical or literary analyses, indispensable tools to understand an author’s perspective and where they’re coming from — the bedrock of empathy. By the same token, knowing how unscrupulous characters appeal to an audience prevents us from being misled.

   The College Board has, in effect, developed an overarching criterion to systematically evaluate perhaps the most subjective and intricate discipline known to secondary education. They have quantified the seemingly unquantifiable. Props to them.

   But this is less an argument of the College Board than it is an indictment of timed writing — the former is merely an agent. If what Mr. Crowson said is true, then it seems timed writes have betrayed the very essence of writing. Gone is the creative process and ability to proofread. During timed writes, I have often found myself having to forgo eloquence and its rhetorical ensemble to ensure I am satisfying all the components of a rubric. One can only imagine what this opinion piece would sound like had I only 60 minutes to compose it.

   Grammatical correctness is an inextricable component of good writing. While some might scoff at the notion of a ‘grammar police,’ Mr. Crowson begged to differ. “When there are subject/verb agreement problems, run-ons, fragments, numerous spelling errors, and improperly used words and phrases, it makes it near impossible for students to effectively complete the assignment,” he explained. “I’ll put it another way, imagine listening to your favorite song, but the person singing is off key, or better yet, your song is being played by a group of musicians still learning how to play.”

   Yuhan Jia (11), a student enrolled in AP Lang, was inclined to agree: “if what you’re saying is all elevated and lofty, but your grammar is just not there, it makes you [sound] unprofessional and it makes people doubt really if you know what you’re talking about.” Jia warned that “you [could be] talking about big and great things, but people aren’t going to be able to understand that” if your writing is riddled with errors.

   Furthermore, when students earn all six points for a rubric that assesses objective skill, they are given a false impression that they are in fact ‘good writers’ when all they are merely proving is adherence to a set of arbitrary guidelines. As Mr. Crowson put it, “Many have gotten used to teachers telling them how great they are. . . . I’m all for positive reinforcement, however, it can be detrimental when it leads to students believing there is no room for improvement.”

   To combat this, Mr. Crowson has taken to assiduously proofreading his student’s papers, a practice that I’ve not seen since elementary school, and I therefore, highly praise. He reassured me that “[he doesn’t] read [his] students’ work with malicious intent, but [he does] want them to keep striving for perfection, even if it’s not attainable.”

   Granted, it may seem far-fetched to expect students to write with grammatical precision and fulfill the objective components of the AP Lang rubric. All this points to the dubiety of the timed write as an infallible benchmark of students’ performance. Put simply, it’s difficult to fulfill objective requirements while satiating subjective tastes all within an hour’s time. If I’m being bold, I would hazard to question the practicality of timed writing beyond academic assessments and persuasive brain-dumping.

   Advait Sawalkar (11), another AP Lang student, reserved ample doubts toward timed writes, positing that “in real life, you’re not going to be [submitting] ‘first-time’ drafts” for professional résumés, newspaper articles, novels, speeches, or even college applications that require “multiple drafts for you to get the grammar” and delivery right. Sawalkar also raised concerns about first-draft essays inculcating bad habits into students: “if you make really huge grammar mistakes and they go unnoticed, that gets carried on when . . . you go out into the real world because no one has told you anything about it.” If an author’s credibility is wholly predicated on their ability to write eloquently and cogently, timed writes afford zero opportunities for exploration and improvement in this domain.

   Alas, we have lost our conviction to write with purpose. That is not to say we’re incapable of writing purposefully; on the contrary, I’d wager many students would be eager to demonstrate this if given the opportunity. Yet, as increasing emphasis is placed on timed writing, particularly in the AP curricula, we’ve disassociated ourselves from the true reason why English is taught in the first place. 

   Above all else, writing is a form of communication. It is an intricate tapestry of words that elicits a myriad of emotions. The purpose of writing then, is not to beat a checklist or the clock, but to better oneself as a communicator, to express oneself more comfortably and articulately, and to find one’s voice through diction that is uniquely theirs. 

   I can understand why timed writing is such a popular benchmark in English classes: with so many tools at our disposal to enhance our essays, from autocorrect, to Google, to Grammarly, time constraints seemingly divulge our true abilities without embellishment or assistance. 

   Suffice to say, we have so aggressively disarticulated ourselves to beat the clock. We have stymied our writing potential due to hastiness, if not incompletion. We have drafted insipid papers at alarming frequency to conform to constraining rubrics. We have relinquished our creativity and diction to a paradigm that purports to measure effective writing. How ironic that the very rhetorical and literary strategies studied in class are so seldom applied in our own timed writes. I wonder why?

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