Guide for Students with Disabilities

Because every student is different, advising students with impairments in matters of writing requires innovation. As with all writers, what works for one student will not necessarily work for another. Accordingly, we cannot, via the web, offer a "plan" (or even a group of plans) that will transform students into competent writers. What we can offer is some anecdotal advice, gathered over the years from students who have used these strategies to become clearer, more efficient writers.

Making the Writing Process Concrete

First, we should acknowledge that students with impairments benefit from the strategies that we offer throughout this site.  Good practice is good practice.  And so perhaps the most important step in taking control of your writing process is to make that process as concrete as you possibly can. The writing process typically involves several steps: coming up with a topic, developing a thesis, organizing your thoughts, writing and rewriting, refining your sentences, and correcting your grammar. You should never try to rush this process. Don't skip steps; don't try to write "straight from your head."

Instead, make the process concrete. Write everything down. When you are coming up with a topic for your paper, brainstorm by making a list of every idea that comes into your head. Once you have a list, look at your ideas and try to sketch them, using arrows or colored markers to cluster your ideas so that you can easily see which seem to go together. You might want to go even further and annotate each of your clusters. In other words, write a sentence or two that suggests how these ideas relate to one another.

If making lists doesn't work for you, try freewriting. And if freewriting feels too random, try to write a more focused discovery draft. You may, in fact, want to write more than one. Tip: the more writing you do when you are planning the paper, the more you'll have to work with when you start to write.

Once you've come up with your topic, you'll want to develop a working thesis sentence. Learning-disabled students might profit by writing a thesis sentence that has an explicit essay map. This map will direct you through the major points of your paper and can prevent you from getting lost in tangential ideas. (For more information about developing the thesis statement, see Developing Your Ideas and Finding Your Thesis.)

Use your essay map to suggest a structure for your paper. Make a detailed outline to help you to develop your idea logically. Tip: Outlines should be fluid. As your ideas evolve, so do your outlines. Try to keep your outline current with your evolving ideas.

One final way of making the writing process more concrete is to keep notes about where and when you are having trouble with a paper. For example, if you are having trouble keeping your second point separate from your third point, make a note of that. Later, when you are revising your paper, check your process notes and make sure that you've addressed the problems that arose while you were writing.

Useful Tips

Read your paper out loud, or have someone read it to you. 

  • Some students don't have problems with freezing up in front of the computer screen. Rather, they write a good deal. The problem is that what they write doesn't seem to hold together. Often reading their papers out loud helps these students to "hear" where their papers have gone wrong. If this method doesn't work for you, have a friend read your paper aloud to you. You will be able to hear in her voice where she stumbles, or grows confused.

See a peer tutor early in the writing process. 

  • Nothing will be more useful to you than seeing a peer tutor. A tutor can help you to explore your idea. He might also help you to make your writing process more concrete. Finally, a peer tutor can help you to see patterns of error in your paper that you didn't see. Drop by the RWIT Center on the first floor of Berry Library. Students interested in establishing an ongoing relationship with a tutor at RWIT should e-mail Nick Van Kley.

Use a tape recorder. 

  • Some students can talk quite clearly about their ideas but get stuck the moment they face their computer screen. If you have this problem, try talking through your idea, and tape it. When you play back the tape, you may find that the ideas and even the structure for your paper really are "all there." Transcribe what you've recorded, and work with your draft from there.

Use colored markers.

  • If you've drafted a paper that seems muddled, get some colored highlighters and try to trace the evolution of each idea through your paper. Assign each point of your argument a color, and then go through the entire paper and "color" each sentence according to which idea it belongs to. You are likely to find that, for example, you began a paragraph talking about point A, shifted suddenly to point B, went on to point C, back to B, and so on. Colored markers can help you to see where and how your ideas went astray.

Use note cards. LOTS of note cards. 

  • Colored note cards are a good idea, too. Several learning-disabled students report that they write their papers one point at a time. They put each point on a note card and then spread the note cards out on the floor (or on a ping pong table) and try to arrange them in an order that works. Students who are writing a paper in which they are going to explore or to compare two or more ideas find that colored note cards are useful in keeping their ideas straight. Colored note cards can also be used to indicate different elements of your argument - for example, pink notecards represent the history of the problem, blue notecards represent the dominant critical views, etc.