Saturday, January 20, 2007

On Writing

I remember the first time I really felt like I was learning how to write was my first year of college. Obviously I'd written before then, and I was always a talented writer, but I don't recall ever having felt like somebody was teaching me how to write - teaching me a process for writing - until my first year of college.

Before that, sure, I do remember being told how to write - how an essay was supposed to be structured, how a particular assignment should look - but I don't remember anybody giving me the tools to do those things. This isn't to say I wasn't given them - it may well be that I just wasn't ready to accept what I was being taught about process at that point. (Incidentally, I think one of the most important things I've learned as a teacher of writing is that some students are just not yet ready to internalize the stuff about process in their first semester of college, and this doesn't necessarily have a thing in the world to do with innate intelligence or preparedness or anything else - it's about maturity - and so again, I'm not dissing my high school teachers or anything for not teaching me a process for writing - I really think I just wasn't ready. I also think that sometimes it is naturally talented writers who most resist being given instruction about process because they've never needed to articulate their process to themselves before because they're just "good" at writing.)

So why am I thinking about learning to write and process on this sunshiney Saturday afternoon? Well, obviously, with teaching writing one often thinks about such things. But I'm also thinking about it because I'm trying to turn a 25-page article into a 16-18 page talk, and so I'm thinking a lot about my own writing process and my own strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

1) I can tend to be wordy. I know: this shocks you.
2) Sometimes, while a structure makes perfect sense to me, it can seem... "baroque"... to a reader. (That adjective is courtesy of my dissertation advisor.)
3) I can be too absolute about my interpretations.

1) I'm a confident writer, and I generally don't get blocked.
2) I'm completely willing to scrap pages and pages, and I do not fall in love with words or sentences that I write. Even whole paragraphs I'm totally happy to chop out of an essay if necessary, and I don't give it a second thought.
3) I have a strong voice (I think) that comes through even in formal academic prose.

Current problems:
1) How to maintain the shape of my argument and the nuances of my analysis while still chopping out pages of material? (Incidentally, I'm down to 19 now, so really I'd be fine if I just cut out 1-2 pages more.)
2) How to anticipate questions about this project when I'm not even sure I believe what I'm arguing in it. (This is a pitfall related to Strength #2 - I fear I don't really have much conviction about my literary critical claims.)
3) How artfully to direct an audience to a handout for longer quotations; how artfully to integrate read quotations in a way that isn't terribly clunky. (My personal belief is that there is no artful way to do either of these things, but a girl can dream.)

What I wish is that all writing were like blog writing, where I don't edit, where I don't anticipate responses, and where I don't feel pressure. I hate pressure. Pressure sucks. And it makes me procrastinate. So far this morning I have not even glanced at the talk I'm preparing, but rather I scheduled an appointment with a prospective pet-sitter, I talked to my mom on the phone, I played on my computer, and I invented and baked a casserole. And now I'm blogging about what I need to do with my talk I'm revising instead of working on the actual revisions.

But now I'm going to go try my casserole, and if it's any good I will post the recipe, since again, I invented it. I am very creative when I'm not getting things done, you know.


Tiruncula said...

Dr.C, this post really spoke to me. In school and college, I fit the profile of the talented-but-resistant writer you describe. Thing is, I don't think I ever got to the point in formal schooling where I was ready to take instruction. I talked my way out of taking basic writing courses at all in high school, and in college my reaction to failing to place out of freshman writing through sheer brilliance was seething resentment, which carried me right through the course I was "forced" to take. I don't recall that I learned a damned thing in that course, which was entirely due to my bad attitude. What I did learn during college was which profs liked my inimitable style the way it was. The usual practice at my college of writing papers on short order for oral delivery reinforced the tendency to be rewarded for being glib and confident.

I don't think I began to engage with the reality of improvement-through-revision until I was finished grad school and began dealing with journal submissions (from both sides of the editor's desk). A few encounters with "revise and resubmits" coupled with genuinely helpful readers' comments were the first time in 25+ years of schooling that I had been shown a tangible reward (better prose + publication!) as a result of careful revision. Editing the work, in turn, of scholars whose published work I idolize has given me a glimpse behind the curtain at how far even very experiencd writers go between polished drafts and finished products.

But some part of my reptile brain still believes, somehow, that good writing is a matter of talent and flair and so cannot be taught in classrooms - despite years of teaching experience to the contrary. Because I never learned from a writing class (won't go so far as to say I wasn't taught or didn't take one), I catch myself being bemused at the whole enterprise of writing instruction. I need to give myself a good shaking. I wish I had half the humility of most of my students: I'd learn more.

Anonymous said...

Interesting question about the "process" of writing and how (and if) it can be taught. As you note, there are conventions of style all the way from the simplest sentence, through the five-paragraph essay and on up to the thesis (I currently have 48 pages of my rough draft done!).

And the simpler the level (e.g. that five-paragraph essay) the less you need to know "how" to write. But I'm not even sure you can teach that. I do remember being taught a "how" strategy that included steps something like this..

1) Brainstorm
2) Write Notes
3) Outline
4) Complete Rough Draft
5) Revise
6) Edit
7) Profit!

(with steps 2 and 3 being reversible, I think).

But I can't write that way..

First it leaves out the most important step of all, which shouldn't have a number:

1) Think!

Second, I write by accretion and deletion. They say Shakespeare never blotted a word (not academic writing, but certainly worth notice) and I have friends who write almost entirely from notes and citations....

But I do what it sounds like you do.. I get my head around my topic and even as I do that I write long fragments about that...

as I read/learn more I write more and cut stuff I don't like anymore.. this goes on until I'm about 15% over whatever my page count should be and I think I've covered the topic...

then some slaughtering (I hate academic writing because it forces you to add crap to your points) back to thinking and then more writing..

the process is endless and it's normally the due-date of the thing in question that ends the process...

Can this be taught? I'm not sure.

When I worked in a WRAC Center I liked to model different approaches to see what students gravitated towards... but it's kind of like coaching a sport, I guess. Somewhere in the mix there needs to be desire, inspiration, and some magic... without that everything will be rote... and rote ain't how it should be wrote!

Anonymous said...

Likewise, I don't remember being taught to write. I remember being given lots of opportunities to write, from middle school on. And I remember getting to college, being an English major who routinely got "As" on every paper (except two, one for good reason) and still wondering every time I sat down at the computer if I knew how to write a paper. I needed to read my own previously graded work before I could sit down to draft. And I always wrote exactly two drafts: a first messy one and a second, revised paragraph by paragraph until it felt "done" (which meant likely to get an A). Then I got to grad school and had the same fear all over again, uncertainty about standards. And by then I was willing to go through as many drafts as it took to feel "done." And here, now, in the midst of revising stuff to send to journals for publication, I get frustrated because "done" doesn't translate into publication in the way that it once did an "A." I'm very good at the revise-and-resubmit process (because I'm willing to follow suggestions so long as they don't compromise the integrity of my argument). But I also wonder if an essay can get to the point that it just won't get accepted, despite anything that's done to it.

Anyway, I'm getting longwinded. But I truly believe that having the opportunity to write and a willingness to revise can make almost any student a better writer. I remember one of my best comp students in one of my first semester teaching came to me, almost in tears, saying she was a "bad writer" because it took her an hour to write a page. I told her, no, you're a good writer because it takes you an hour to write a page. She was willing to do the work she needed to do.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha, I got the "baroque" comment, too! With me, it was my "baroque *imagination." Not a compliment (as he imagined it), but I kinda dig it. Ditto "wine from a box," or how an anonymous poster characterized my blog. Again, wasn't a compliment, but I think it's great.

Unlike you, I use my blog to practice the skills -- in particular, to work on being more concise in my writing (I know, you wouldn't know it). I have a terrible problem with "burying the lede" in my academic writing -- qualifying every claim, no matter now minor, to show I've done all the leg-work, reseach and thinking-wise, until the argument gets lost. Actually, conference papers have helped me with that, coz I know there's only so much listeners can take in, and that there will be a Q & A period where I can answer any questions or challenges. In fact, imagining the actual bodies in seats -- i.e. will Peter Stallybrass, or Richard Strier, etc be there? -- and the types of questions each of those people tends to ask, helps me anticipate what the questions/challenges will be. So I'm trying to pretend everything I write is a conference paper.

But what would happen if you initially approached your academic writing as you do your blog? Why not?

Oh, and as for the handout thing. I like handouts. As a listener, they give me something to focus on, scribble on, to process the talk. As for "artful" ways of managing them, I try to work in to the pre-talk "does everybody have a handout?" thing some indication of when in the talk I will be using them. And I tend to use the overhead, too, to direct the audience's attention to what I'm talking about. I don't know that it can be seamless, so I try to work the seams, to break things up and keep it interesting, just as we would in class.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post about writing. I think writing is more often than not a messy process. That is, one has to be willing to create messes, try out ideas, try different phrasing or different structures, be willing to go at it in a nonlinear fashion. This is the part often known as brainstorming. I always urge my students to do it but somehow many are resistant because they want a formula where the path one is taking is clear and because they aren't used to thinking. And thinking is a very messy process. Then after creating a mess, one has to have the discipline to clean it up, fix it so it reads linearly. Strange enough, I've had several times in my life when I discovered I liked writing--high school, college, grad school (I was in the middle of writing a seminar paper, and thinking I love the process of writing), and then when I was dissertating, and even when I was under the gun revising my book manuscript. Each time I think it's because I learned something new about the topic and felt I got at it in a better, deeper way.

But of course you're also thinking about how to write a talk--and it seems to me that while my best talks are from things written to be sent to a journal or whatever, I also need to make it easier to listen to whether by making the sentences shorter (and thus easier to read) or writing in folksy parts to avoid the monotony of academic speak or planning to have asides to break things up a bit for the audience, so that they can catch their breath and have a bit of time to process what profundities I just said (hah!). I tend not to use handouts myself, but lately I've been using some visual material--it helps to make my point in a different medium, and it gives me places to let the audience pause so that they'll be better able to listen to the next bit. This may be what gwynn means by working the seams?

New Kid on the Hallway said...

1) I can tend to be wordy. I know: this shocks you.

Hee hee hee hee hee! Dr. C, I love this point, because I could have said it (but it wouldn't have been as funny).

Um, hi, I've been away from blogging for a bit, so that's why I'm commenting on this about a month later...