Identifying Yourself as a Writer

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.

9 responses to “Identifying Yourself as a Writer

  1. Great article. Thanks for writing this!

  2. Paola Calvasina

    Hi, Rachel,
    Thanks for posting this text.
    I wonder if there is any specific advice for second language writers.

    • This is an interesting question, Paola. My simple answer is that, in this particular area, there is no need to make a distinction between first and second language speakers. I am sure you have heard me say that academic English is nobody’s first langauge. What that means is that everyone (regardless of their language background) needs to learn how to be an academic writer. The advice in this post–embracing the label of writer, in all its complexity–is suitable for all academic writers. But the actual practice of learning more about how to write is often, as you know, more difficult for second language writers.

  3. Hi Rachel,
    I loved reading your article today. When I was reading through, I felt as I were describing myself, dscribing how I should edit my own writing strategies. It was a great posting, indeed.
    It should not be a surprise as I do agree with you on a lot of issues, especially when you mentioned that we do think of ourselves as “bad writers”.
    The novice writer that I am is always reading her own research articles and papers.
    In the past, I thought that the best way to write is to read a lot, such as novels, and other publications related to the writing skill as such. However, I was mistaken.
    I discovered that the best way to write is to go first through his/her own writing and see what it lacks, how to address a grammatical issue( sentence pattern, for instance), etc…
    Needless to say that the three strategies sound very “COOL”. However, I have one reserve about one of them.
    As I am teaching in an EFL environment, I have noticed that we are too shy to talk about our weaknesses in writing, and I think this is typical of Mediterranean cultures.
    The workshop writing you referred to has proved to be of great help in my classes. My students understood that writing in groups is a way to motivate them to better write in English. Everyone is bringing in an idea and in whatever language it might be. This is a way to contribute to the writing task.
    Great posting,

  4. Pingback: I Write, You Write, We All Write « University of Venus

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  6. While Caffarella and Barnett (2000) indicate that critique is the most influential element in helping learners produce a better writing product, critique can be an emotional event. I first started accepting verbal criticism and learning how to deal with it, at the age of 18 when I was at boot camp, basic training in the U.S. Air Force in Lackland AFB, San Antonio, TX.
    Written criticism carried over when I started learning how to use APA format writing. All doctoral learners must develop appropriate voice in writing in order to make the transition from student to scholar since readers of written works will perceive the narrative as an authoritative discourse that demands respect. Tone is an essential ingredient to communicate scholarship in a way that is clear and concise. Wade (1995) provides eight writing exercises/assignments that can contribute to critical and creative thinking.
    To conclude, learning how to accept written criticism and adapting to receiving written criticism in writing is necessary, when learning how to make the transition from student to becoming a scholar.

    Wade, C. (1995). Using writing to develop and assess critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 24-28. doi: 10.1207/s15328023top2201_8. The path to a successful doctoral experience. Phoenix, AZ: Grand Canyon University. Retrieved from

  7. As a writer and speaker I wish to be effective in changing the thinking and actions of others on particular topics. I wish I knew the skill sets to do this, in addition to facts and figures as all decisions are ultimately emotional. As a writer and speaker I am okay on the facts and figures but not the other stuff.

  8. Pingback: How To Write A Book: 9 Tips And Tricks For New Writers – Emma Reed

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