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Students need better options for improving writing

A must-read item for students and professors alike this week is a column in the Nov. 12 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. In the column, a contributor under the pseudonym of Ed Dante provides a stunning exposé of the hidden world of “custom essay writing” — hiring someone to complete a writing assignment that will be passed off as one’s own work.

Dante describes in horrifying detail the number of reports, college admissions essays, business proposals, and even full graduate theses he has written on behalf of his customers. Producing up to 40 pages a day, with perhaps 20 different assignments underway at one time, Dante claims that he will earn approximately $66,000 this year creating papers for desperate students in almost any field of study and at any level of education.

Though many Chronicle readers are doubtlessly — and justifiably — outraged over the deep violations of academic integrity being committed by America’s university students, we also must consider what the practice of custom essays says about the educational system itself.

Dante breaks his student clients into two broad groups: those who struggle with communication in general, possibly because of a language barrier, and those he terms “lazy rich kids.” In the case of struggling students, there needs to be a variety of more ethical writing help options available that don’t involve paying thousands of dollars for someone on the Internet to do all the work. Unfortunately, Internet ghostwriters are readily available, and few university courses place much emphasis on developing or monitoring writing skills. This makes custom paper writing an easier option for some students than working to develop their own abilities.

To provide a complete response to custom essay writing, professionals at individual universities and in the wider academic community must be more aware of writing skills and provide more integral support for developing them. Carnegie Mellon’s Intercultural Communication Center offers writing clinics to help students revise specific class assignments or improve writing style in general, and some academic conferences and journals have begun to include author mentoring services, but both of these aids are being aimed at non-native English speakers only. Academic Development offers help with writing, but again, this is outside the classroom.

In many classrooms and publications, writing standards still take a backseat to exam performance or research results. We argue for an increased focus on all students writing well in any setting where students must write at length. At the same time, professors and advisers should put more care into helping their students’ development as writers. More visible and more viable coaching options would be a strong way to treat the cause of poor writing skills instead of merely its symptoms.