Do you think of yourself as a writer? Graduate students write a great deal but rarely think of themselves as writers. Maybe this is analogous to how we think of other activities; I love to bake, for instance, but would never describe myself as a baker. A baker is someone who has training as such or who, at the very least, is paid to do so. Since neither of those is true for me, I am just someone who spends way too much time baking. Similarly, since we aren’t generally trained as writers or paid to write, we don’t call ourselves writers. But there are implications of being a writer–that is, someone who has to write frequently in order to meet key professional goals–who nonetheless shies away from that label. What would you say if asked to finish the following sentences?
‘As a writer, I am…’
‘As a writer, I wish to be…’
Many of us will come up with sentences like these:
‘As a writer, I am not very good (or skilled or competent or efficient or happy or effective or confident).’
‘As a writer, I wish to be finished, so I don’t have to write any more!’
In my experience, people rarely think of themselves as writers, but they frequently think of themselves as bad writers. Adopting that sort of critical stance towards our own writing could be beneficial if it was part of a broader project of developing our writing skills. But novice writers often treat bad writer as an ontological category, as a condition that will afflict them forever and always. Needless to say, it can be hard to improve your writing if you are more or less resigned to never improving. If you are inclined to think of yourself as a bad writer, try lopping off the ‘bad’. Doing so may leave you with a more hopeful construction: ‘I am a writer who needs to improve in such-and-such ways. These improvements will come from such-and-such strategies.’
I recently came across an interesting article that discusses a range of strategies designed to improve the writing process:
[W]e have identified strategies that can help novices understand more about academic writing and their relationship with writing. One strategy is to confront and talk about rather than ignore the difficult emotions that writing stirs up. This can result in two potentially enabling insights for beginning academic writers. They learn that their feelings are not extraordinary but commonplace, and therefore not something to be anxious about. And by finding that their feelings are shared by more experienced writers, novices learn that difficult emotions need not get in the way of writing, can be managed rather than erased and might even be productive in the writing process. The second strategy is to explicitly address procedural know-how and expose what goes on in the writing process. This provides novices with information about strategies for productive writing, and assures them that what they currently perceive as failings (such as having to write and rewrite multiple times) are the very means for producing good writing. Novices learn that they are not deficient or lacking in skills but doing exactly what experienced writers do. Related to this, the third strategy is to…hail novices as academic writers—to use social settings, such as writing workshops, where novices, in the presence of others, take on tasks as if they were already experienced writers (for example, to read the work of an admired author not as a student seeking wisdom, but as a one writer inquiring into how another writer writes) (Cameron, Nairn, and Higgins, 2009; emphasis mine).
These strategies are expressed as ways that instructors can help students, and they are indeed all strategies that I find useful in my teaching. But they are also approaches that you can use yourself: you can talk honestly with your peers about your writing difficulties; you can accept that writing doesn’t come automatically and seek out the support that you need; and you can consciously adopt the role of academic writer as you approach the texts that you read. Even if writing support is hard to find, I urge you to continue to look for resources to help you implement these strategies in your own writing life. The blogroll is full of excellent resources, and I will return to these issues in future blog posts. For today, I will close with a post from the Hook & Eye blog that offers one writer’s reflections on the role of identification and acceptance in the writing process.
Source: Cameron, J., Nairn, K., & Higgins, J. (2009). Demystifying academic writing: Reflections on emotions, know-how and academic identity. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 33 (2), 269-284.