Anna Matthews, RDH, MS, associate professor in the Department of Dental Hygiene at New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York, and a member of Dimensions Peer Review Panel, helps students overcome their fears of the blank page.
As an experienced writer who has loved this form of communication and expression since early grade school years, there is still fear of the blank white page of the Word document any time I begin my new writing project. I stare at the screen and it stares back at me, waiting for me to start putting the words together like beads on a string. And then, somehow, I begin!
One of my favorite authors, Ernest Hemingway, whose celebrated work is known near and far, remarked on confronting his own anxiety about writing: “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” (E.Hemingway, “A Movable Feast”, 1964). I take heart in knowing that writers like him shared their fear of writing—so familiar to many of us. As an educator, I see my students’ struggles with the writing assignments first-hand, and I often hear their comments about how challenging writing is for them, especially students who, like me, are not native English speakers.
To help my students overcome their challenges with writing, I first want to let them see the benefits of it and why it is important for them as students and future dental professionals. Writing activities across curriculum, in general education and discipline-specific courses, have been shown effective in helping students to develop not only their written communication skills, but also facilitating achievement of other learning goals such as oral communication, information literacy, scientific inquiry, and life-long learning. Writing in dental hygiene supports students’ development as oral health professionals by building their professional technical writing proficiency necessary for detailed and accurate patient record keeping, ensuring core dental hygiene ethical values, and professional risk management. On a more practical level, good written communication skills also help our students and graduates in effectively communicating with potential employers in a professional manner. I remind my students that before they even get invited to that most prestigious practice for an interview, they will most likely have to introduce themselves in writing by email and present themselves in their carefully crafted written resume.
Despite the challenges writing presents to many of us, I have many stories of success to share. I myself won my very first prize for my writing back when I was a student in the college where I am now teaching. I could not believe the words of my English professor who asked me if she could submit my essay for a college-wide competition. I remember thinking, “Me? My essay? But I am barely in the US for 2 years, as an English language learner, could I really write something so good and worthy of this competition?” And yes, my professor believed in me, and indeed I won that contest and could not be prouder of my achievement. This memory of my accomplishment as a new American over 20 years ago motivates me to encourage my students to excel in writing, and many of them over the years have achieved recognition for their efforts by having their essays in my courses published in the CityTech Writer—our own college journal of outstanding student writing. Here are their words which I hope will encourage YOU to overcome your fears!
KEISHA FRASER, RDH (2018 CityTech Dental Hygiene graduate)
Keisha’s essay exploring the disparities in dental care availability and access in the US was a thoughtful and passionate report “How Much Is A Smile Worth?” which was published in the 2017 issue of CityTech Writer.
Keisha reflected on this assignment and she gives the following advice:
“Writing on any subject especially one you hold dear to you can be challenging while still exciting. As I reminisce on writing the article ‘How much is a smile worth?’ some ideas came to mind. The writing assignment itself was not particularly difficult. What I did find difficult was trying to condense the material while still being able to add in my own thoughts and not lose the purpose of the assignment. It was important to always remind myself throughout my writing that I needed the information to be digestible to just about anyone without diluting any information. When it comes to writing do what works best for you but at the same time be open to challenging yourself to try something out of your comfort zone. You will absolutely surprise and amaze yourself!”
OPAL THOMAS, RDH (2020 CityTech Dental Hygiene graduate)
Another student in my course, Opal Thomas, RDH, is also a recent graduate and she now continues her studies at CityTech towards a Bachelor’s degree in Health Services Administration. Her heartfelt essay on the same topic as Keisha’s and titled “The Cost of Dental Care—A Modern-Day Medical Travesty” was published in the 2019 issue of the CityTech Writer.
She says: “..it is in my limited opinion that what makes a good author is a person that is not only an observer but one who speaks passionately from their perspective.” Opal hails from Jamaica and she works as a dental hygienist and says “I aspire to be effective in the implementation of healthcare policies and eradicate disparaging inequities.”
I am heartened to know that introducing Opal to the readings and videos that provided background information for this writing assignment, not only allowed her to shine as a writer, but also motivated her to work towards the goal of achieving healthcare equity.
IBETH ERAZO (2021 CityTech Dental Hygiene prospective graduate)
Ibeth is our current senior student. She hails from a village in southern Colombia and her native language is Spanish. Her considerate and caring analysis of another topic we discussed in my course concerning the story of David Vetter who was known as the “Boy in the Bubble,” was published in the 2020 issue of CityTech Writer.
Ibeth shares her experience as an English language learner:
“Being able to communicate with other people in a language other than mine has always been one of my passions. To me, this is like real magic. When I arrived in this city, I barely spoke English and I will not deny that at the beginning I often felt frustrated. I remember that at that time, and after a few months of attending classes and seeing that my vocabulary did not improve, I made the decision to start reading English literary classics. I remember I bought my first book at a Salvation Army for less than 50 cents. It was Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ From then on, I did not stop reading and, of course, I noticed a great improvement not only in my vocabulary but also in the use of grammar. The complicated thing was when I started taking classes at the university. I remember that it took me hours and hours to write a simple essay and I keep making many grammar mistakes. It was hard and tiring. However, I have been fortunate to have wonderful professors who have motivated me and pushed me to do my best.”
I hope these stories offer inspiration and motivate everyone who reads this to strive to achieve your very best as a writer, or more generally as a health professional, notwithstanding and in spite of any challenges.
A FEW TIPS:
- When you start your writing project, just START. No one’s first draft is their final, and you can always edit and revise!
- Don’t limit yourself even if you do have a word limit (as is usual in scholarly writing). You can always edit it down, but first, feel free to express your thoughts fully and without restriction!
- Read your drafts aloud to someone you trust, or just to yourself. Many things become clearer after you’ve heard them being read and you may notice repetitions that may otherwise not be visible.
- Be brave, you can do it!
Read Anna Matthews, RDH, MS, most recent articles “Not All Paths to Dental Hygiene Are Linear,” and “Monoclonal Antibodies and Their Impact on Oral Healthcare.”