How is it that we become writers?
I was thinking about this last night and this morning because I finished grading a slew of short papers last night for a class I teach. A couple were excellent. Some were ok. Many were very bad. Ill formed ideas, sloppily put together, obviously not re-read. My sense is, if asked, these people would say that they write badly. Always have. It’s why many of them put off going to college or did poorly in school. (I teach adult learners).
And yet . . . the truth is that they just didn’t work on the paper they turned in. What if they had spent some time just thinking about the ideas behind their paper? Their topic was to choose an important event in U.S. History and explain why they believed it important (between 1492 and 1865). What if they had just pondered that for a day, letting it fill up the corners of their mind while they were driving, doing dishes, or tucking kids into bed?
And then what if they had jotted down all those ideas? Made a brain map of them, looked to see how they might interact or relate? What was repetitive? What needed to be eliminated? Then would come a more formal outline with some structure being applied to the ideas.
Then a first draft. Then setting the draft aside for a day. Then reading that draft out loud. And then finally a finished copy. Not perfect, of course, but much, much better.
If I gave my students this advice, would they listen to me? Likely not–they’d argue that they didn’t have time to spend so much effort on a single paper. It was just a paper, anyway. But then they’d grumble about what bad writers they are.
Instead, this is the email I sent them:
“good morning everyone,
I finished grading the short papers and have returned them. Since this was a warm-up for the big research paper, I marked them up heavily. You may be disheartened by the mark-ups but remember that returning to school is tough. Getting back into the swing of things can be a challenge and writing papers for school is different than writing for the “real” world. Hang in there!
I remember my first writing assignment in grad school. The professor wrote on it: “IS ENGLISH YOUR FIRST LANGUAGE???”
I was devastated because what I wanted most in the world was to be a writer. How could I be a writer if my writing was so horrible??
I stuck with it, got back into the swing of academic writing, read a lot, and continue to improve to this day.
Learning never ends. But isn’t that exciting?
So take heart and hang in there. If it was easy, everyone would do it!
Now you have both versions of my advice on becoming a writer.