On Good and Bad Writers

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.

4 thoughts on “On Good and Bad Writers

  1. I know this is comes very late, but I haven’t come across your blog until today and this is how far I’ve come… and …

    On this very day you posted this, I handed in my MA thesis – and I sincerely, sincerely wish I had had the chance to read this a year or two ago for this post says all which I had to painfully, painfully experience myself while struggling with my writing, my style, a language not my own, and – most of all – with the notion that I had always been perceived as ‘a talent’.

    My issue is with the word ‘talent’. While it may well be that some of us have a greater affinity to words and are better at trusting their intuition of how to use them, ‘talent’ has come to mean something which is innate and cannot be altered, lost or gained, rather than what it should be: a sound foundation upon which to build true mastery of any given trade.

    This chimes in with your post ‘How to Praise Your Students’, but being proclaimed ‘talented’ personally even offends me a little, since it implies that there was no room for me to struggle or improve; it disregards all the efforts I make in trying to hone my English, my style, my line of argument. For me, it lead to a dearth in feedback from my tutors – a gift which is sparse anyway, given that German universities are chronically understaffed – and essentially left me to deal with any potential difficulties alone. The reasoning always was, “You’re good, our time is better spent on those who aren’t doing well.”

    True. And yet also very unfair, for there comes a time for each of us when we hit our very own wall of brick – and I, personally, would rather do so while still picking up speed rather than crash and burn shortly before the finish line. Which is what I did.

    It took me a very long time, some excruciating soul-searching and serious self-doubts (things you cannot share with anyone for, hey! you’re talented so you don’t have to worry) to just abandon all the expectations that I felt were being placed upon me and to just accept that I cannot, ever, be a ‘good writer’ because whether my writing is ‘good’ is determined by people other than myself. I can, however, put my best into my writing – and this is something that only I can assess. (Hey, sometimes the truth really does sound that cheesy…)

    Ultimately, this did not necessarily lead to a thesis half as lucid or outstanding as I would have liked it to be, but at least it made me realise that despite it being somewhat less than ingenious, I still had achieved something – even if that only meant that I made it through.

    And that’s why I hate ‘talent’: Other people are allowed to be happy if they’ve finished a project, for ‘talented’ people ‘just’ following through is equated with failure. Or at least, this is the idea you get. Which, of course, is no longer true as soon as nobody knows you’re supposed to have talent – then you’re just expected to do your best, which is really everything that one can do. Only this was really, really hard to come to terms with. And it would have been way easier had I had a teacher who would have allowed for revisals, offered feedback and paid attention to process as well as outcome.

    Um, I guess, what I wanted to say was: Please keep on writing.

    1. Hannah,

      Everything you’ve said here echoes my experience, especially the experiences leading up to my own M.A. Thesis, which seems so long ago. For so long, I’ve had professors–both in undergrad and graduate school–that would just sort of pat me on the head every time I wrote something and send me on my way. For example, my M.A. thesis director wasn’t really even interested in reading intermediate drafts. He read my “final draft” and just sort of said “great!”

      Then I talked to my second reader, who read the document after it had already been approved by my director, and he had some very pointed, relevant, but stinging criticisms. Even though his feedback was, in the aggregate, positive, I had to sit by myself for a long time after the meeting and just process. I wished (and still sort of wish) that I could have worked on that thesis some more before turning it in.

      But a few months later, when it came time to pick a dissertation director, I went back to that tougher professor, and he really has made my work better and given me the sense of accomplishment that only comes from having to rewrite your dissertation prospectus six times. But that meeting following the M.A. thesis was a very defining moment when I also had to learn how limiting being labeled “talented” can be. It sounds like a very high class problem, I’m sure (poor you always being told you were wonderful!), but it really has shaped the way I work with students, especially the “gifted” ones. I had a student who was considering switching from Economics to Journalism and came to me looking for an honest opinion on his writing. I’m sure a lot of people would have just said “you’re a great writer!” and sent him on his way. I tried to address the question by speaking to the work he had done in class, how I saw his “voice” as a writer developing and stuff. I’m not sure if it made sense to him, but I’m still trying to figure this stuff out.

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