Rebecca clutched her A paper enthusiastically and said, “Wow, I never really thought of myself as a good writer.” I am always astonished at how often I hear something like this come out of the mouths of undergraduates. Every semester, I distribute a first day survey that asks my new students, among other things, how they describe themselves as readers and writers, and most readily sort themselves into categories of “good” and “bad” writers. Their identification with the label is clear and usually has very little predictive value in terms of the quality of the writing they do for me or their ultimate grade. Many self-described “bad” writers do very well, while many “good” writers struggle. That sense of identity does, however, seem to relate to feedback they have received in the past and the ways in which they have been taught to think about the writing process.
Most students seem to think I expect them to spit out a diamond on the first attempt and are both paralyzed and relieved by an approach to writing pedagogy that teaches that—as Anne Lamott famously said in Bird by Bird—most first drafts are shit, and all writing entails revision. My training as an educator began in a Rhetoric and Writing program that strenuously emphasizes revision, but it is rather easy to insist that students accept a “process-oriented” approach to writing and engage in the process of rewriting and polishing without realizing that for the vast majority of us, there are huge psychological hurdles in the way, including our tendency to label ourselves as good and bad writers.
Rebecca’s A paper began quite humbly. In fact, I do not grade the first draft of the first paper submitted in my lower division literature class precisely because of students like Rebecca. The grade she would have gotten might have traumatized her beyond repair. Asked to perform an analysis of an artifact with religious significance in accordance with one of the critical schools we had discussed in class, Rebecca produced a muddled and immature screed about why religious objections to tattoos were silly. She had begun with good intentions, but the first draft didn’t really even meet the terms of the assignment, reading, as it did, more like a personal opinion (and not a well-articulated one) than a cogent analysis. I considered telling her to choose an entirely different topic, but in a conversation after class, we came up with an idea that made this topic work. That three page assignment went through three total rewrites, and ultimately she did a fourth in order to turn that short analysis into an extended research essay that described the history of religious tattoos as a practice and analyzed three modern examples of tattoos in light of that history. She cited seven sources (she wasn’t actually required to cite any) without any prompting or leading from me and ultimately produced a document that taught me something I did not know and did so in an articulate, polished manner. But until that point, Rebecca had never thought of herself as a good writer.
As a graduate student with a history of excellence in school, particularly in my chosen field of American Literature, I had always thought of myself as a good writer. I used the past tense just now because that sense of identity has been challenged by the process of writing a dissertation and the seemingly endless cycles of getting feedback and rewriting, and it is particularly in this space of trying to grapple with my own writing demons that the links between my academic work and my teaching really seem to become one. In so many ways, writing a dissertation is just like writing any other school assignment, except that some of us high-achievers who are accustomed to having the first thing we put on paper declared a diamond, it precipitates an identity crisis. “Who am I,” we secretly wonder, “if I can no longer call myself a good writer?”
I have a hunch about why I, and others, experience this. Writing a dissertation and all of the prospectuses and fellowship proposals and conference abstract and job letters and articles that go along with writing a dissertation present the first opportunities to write for an audience that knows and cares little about you or your topic. “Good writers” often spend their academic lives from the time they were taught the alphabet figuring out what their primary and typically only audience wants, what sorts of ideas, words, sentence constructions, and references get them excited and coax from their pens the desired and expected “A.” Such writing often occurs in the context of a pedagogical relationship in which clear roles have been negotiated: “I am the ‘good student’ who always makes delightful comments in class and stays ahead in the reading and you are the A-generating machine charged with assisting me along the golden path of my Honors career.” The people reading your fellowship proposal, or deciding whether or not to sit on your committee, or reviewing your article for publication, have no such relationship with you. Furthermore, they haven’t been teaching you the very topic of your submitted piece. So, as an advanced graduate writer, the bulk of your work is spent gauging what this unenlightened and potentially hostile audience might want , and that means getting lots and lots of feedback from people who will be honest and occasionally petty and then revising, revising, revising. It would be wrong to say that I envy people like Rebecca, who expect very little of their writing and therefore experience no disappointment when they receive a mediocre grade and lukewarm feedback.
But all of us use the labels of “good” and “bad” writer for ego-protection, to convince ourselves that we don’t have to engage in that process because the outcome is predetermined by our own innate talents. If you’re a bad writer, then there’s no point in trying very hard. This just ain’t your thing. If you’re a good writer, then you shouldn’t really have to try either, because you’re just that “good.” When the bad writer receives a lower than desired grade, he attributes it to an inborn lack of talent and avoids writing whenever possible. When the good writer receives the same grade, she feels that something in their world is terribly, terribly wrong and may attribute the event to some external force: the teacher hates me, she just doesn’t understand what I’m trying to say, this assignment was stupid, etc.
I’m envisioning two major purposes for this blog:
1) To provide practical advice about writing to students and those who must write for their jobs but do not consider themselves to be professional writers.
2) To engage in some meta-commentary about writing pedagogy, including how and why we tend to sort ourselves and our students into “good” and “bad” categories.
So, here we go.