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

See a peer tutor early in the writing process. 

  • Consider working with the support of a peer tutor early on in a writing process. Tutors can help you develop or test ideas, create a focused plan for completing your work, and understand the requirements of your writing assignments. Drop by the Writing Center on the first floor of Berry Library or book an appointment in advance. Students interested in establishing an ongoing relationship with a tutor should e-mail the director, Margot Kotler.

Use a recorder or text-to-speech tool to harness your oral language abilities 

  • Some of us talk quite clearly about our ideas but get stuck the moment we face our computer screen. If this sounds familiar, try talking through your idea on a recording. When you play back the recording, you might find that the ideas and even the structure for your ideas really are "all there." Transcribe parts of what you've recorded (or let an app do that), and work with your draft from there. While your context might demand that you revise the style of your sentences after you've spoken them into existence, this strategy helps many of us find the words or ideas that seem elusive when we sit in front of a keyboard.  

Use visual coding to map ideas in a draft.

  • If you've drafted a paper that seems a bit muddled, get some colored highlighters (or use a different visual-coding tool). 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 may find that 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 coding can help you to see possibilities for re-grouping content to create more continuity. If color-coding doesn't work for you, try printing your project and cutting it up with scissors or creating a new digital copy to drag and drop sentences into new headings. 

Compose your essay in sections and join them later. 

  • When we struggle to keep a whole writing project in our mind all at once, it can be helpful to focus on one point at a time. Write section titles in your document (you may want to delete them at the end) to help you focus on the goals of each section separately. Or, if having a more concrete spatial representation of your project is helpful, print or hand write sections on slips of paper, spread them on the floor (or on a ping pong table), and arrange them in an order that works. Colored note cards may be useful to group different elements of your argument - for example, pink notecards represent the history of the problem, blue notecards represent scholarly views you mean to reject, etc.

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

  • For most of us, reading language silently and hearing language aloud are quite different experiences. Hearing our own writing read aloud can help us slow down and notice things our eyes skip over when we read silently. Some of us also find it easier to inhabit the perspective of an audience when we hear another person (or bot!) read our writing back to us, which can help us identify phrases and sentences that may be too complex or imprecise. If you already work with spoken language during drafting because you use a screen reader, you might get a similar benefit by having a new voice read the text to you at a slower pace. If you work only with visual content because you don't hear, you might get a similar benefit by printing your prose in a larger font and reading it on physical paper. Whatever helps to reduce distractions, slow down, and focus on words and sentences. 
  • We all have tremendous language resources: vocabulary and language structures that we have acquired over the course of our lives. When writing gets complicated - because we are writing about a new subject, in a new style, or to a new audience - it can sometimes be harder to call on those old language resources because we are working so hard to focus on all the new challenges. Reading aloud can help us set aside concerns about meaning for a moment and focus on the language we are using and the structure of our sentences. Try it near the end of a writing process, when you feel your ideas are settled.