Writing Should Be Messy
Writing is hard. Believe it or not, this statement holds true for even the most experienced writers. When readers see an example of ‘good writing,’ they tend to think about the finished product in front of them instead of the process that went into making it. This engagement with writing speaks to a common, but misguided assumption: that writing is the mere expression of already-formed thoughts. Most veteran writers will admit that this assumption is wrong.
Writing is not just the expression of accomplished, internal thinking; rather, writing is an essential part of the thinking process itself. Putting words on the page – the trial-and-error process of scribbling notes, writing placeholder sentences, and constructing partial outlines or ‘messy drafts’ – is how ideas are generated and refined in the first place. Waiting to start writing until ‘inspiration hits’ or until an idea is ‘just right’ is almost always detrimental to the production of good writing. Whether it is a struggling high school student or a best-selling novelist, writers succeed through putting words on the page and experimenting with both form and content. In short, writers fail upwards.
Writing Should Be Collaborative
‘Practice makes perfect’ is not exactly a revelation. Still, the idea becomes more exigent when we understand that practice should also be collaborative. This brings us to our second faulty assumption: that writing is a solitary activity.
Writing, like speaking, is foremost a means of communicating information to others. After all, even the most brilliant idea counts for very little if others cannot understand it. Unfortunately, understanding how you sound on the page is much less intuitive than understanding how you sound when you speak. So how can you anticipate what your writing will sound like to other people? The only way to properly cultivate this skill is to actually have other people read your work as it develops, and to have them provide feedback that reflects their experience as a reader. Whether it is because we are unsure of how our authorial voices sound to other people or because we are so enmeshed in our own perspective that we cannot gain critical distance from it, improving our writing requires exposing it to the gaze of others – to teachers, tutors, editors, peer reviewers, and so forth.
Writing Should Make You Feel Vulnerable
Sharing work, especially unfinished work, is a profoundly vulnerable experience. When we share a piece of our writing, we share a piece of ourselves – a thought process to which we are assigned ownership and authorship. The prospect of our labor and our thinking being met with derision is daunting. From Instagram to academia, we are too often conditioned to only show our ‘best selves.’ I want to suggest, then, that the hardest part of writing is not mastering grammar and syntax or adopting the conventions of different genres. The hardest part of writing is psychological in nature: allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to the reader’s gaze. And yet, approaching writing as a process requires embracing exactly those things – experimentation, ignorance, criticism – which make us feel most exposed.
Towards a Teaching Philosophy
But simply asking students to develop ‘thicker skin’ is not a productive approach. I believe that the onus is on the teacher to cultivate a learning environment in which the student can feel comfortable being vulnerable as a thinker and a writer. And while there are plenty of exercises and assignments that promote such an environment, I hold that the most important practice is clarifying expectations upfront. So, to my future students, I offer this message: you will often feel like your initial thoughts do not represent your ‘best work,’ and that is just fine. You are not alone in this feeling; your peers (and even your teachers) experience it too. You will not be judged as a person or an intellectual for the roughness of your drafts. I will never discourage you from thinking on the page! Approaching writing as a process will make you feel vulnerable. But, however painful, that feeling is a necessary part – maybe the single most necessary part – of becoming a stronger writer.
Cambridge Coaching was founded by doctoral candidates in English, and instruction in reading and writing is one of our particular strengths. Our tutors are published authors, as well as Ph.D candidates from the top English graduate programs in America, with most hailing from Harvard or the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop--or both.
We have a long history of helping high school, college, and graduate students become more astute critical readers and writers capable of producing their own polished academic essays. Many of our students come to us looking for help with basic composition or reading comprehension, but our expert tutors have coached our clients through everything from business English to doctoral dissertations. Whether you need to learn how to tell a participle from a pronoun, or need help making sense of Shakespeare, we can design a syllabus to suit your specific goal.
Check out some other blog posts regarding writing below!: