Writing, Nerves, and Gaining a Sense of Being a “Writer”
Bronwyn Williams, Director
A student in a secondary school in a small town in England tells me that it gets harder to write when he knows there is a grade hanging over the assignment.
A graduate student at an English university, at work on her Ph.D., talks about how anxious she feels while waiting for a response on a dissertation chapter she has sent to her faculty director.
A faculty member, with many published books and journal articles, asks me to read a draft of a chapter for a new book she is writing, but admits that to do so makes her nervous.
This semester I have been away from the University Writing Center, though issues of writing and supporting writers have not been very far from my mind. I am writing this from England where I am currently on a Fulbright Research Fellowship at the University of Sheffield. I’ve been visiting classrooms in colleges and secondary schools here, and talking with students and teachers about the challenges – and opportunities – they find in writing and reading. The fellowship has offered me the opportunity to spend the spring conducting research in a new setting, and the chance to meet and talk with new faculty and graduate student colleagues.
In all of these settings, one of the common things I have noticed about how people talk about reading and writing, is the anxiety that often emerges when it comes time for someone else to read what a writer has written. Regardless of how experienced, or how confident, these writers may be, there are always some circumstances that make them nervous about the way others are going to respond to their writing. Maybe the piece they are writing is going to count for a large part of a course grade. Or perhaps the writing is exploring new ideas or a new genre in the piece she is working on. Or maybe the writer has been told in the past that he is not a good writer and he has come to believe that judgment. For whatever reason, when we put our writing out for others to judge we understand that we are being judged on part of ourselves – our ideas, our identities. No wonder we feel nervous.
Visitors to the University Writing Center often talk to us about feeling similar anxieties. Some people feel they have to apologize for the quality of their writing before a session begins and we’ve even had a chance to read the draft. It’s no longer a surprise to me when I read the writing of someone who has told me that her writing isn’t very good, and find strengths in the writing which the student has begun to doubt are present. Then there are the writers who feel their struggles with writing are a confirmation of the negative judgments of past teachers, when, in fact, their problems are more about having to learn to write in a new genre or about unfamiliar content. At the Writing Center we are always honest about the issues a writer has to address to produce an effective piece of writing. Yet we are also honest about recognizing writing strengths that students may not believe they possess. One of the great pleasures of working in the Writing Center, is seeing our consultants not only help writers with their immediate concerns, but also give them a new perspective on their identities as writers
One of the insights that has become clearer to me through my research this spring is how important it is to have a self-perception of competence and agency in order to be a successful writer. While a set of skills is, of course, important, students – and faculty – who doubt those skills or question their power to demonstrate their abilities, often find themselves unable to complete writing projects successfully. Unfortunately, in our system of education where short-answer, high-stakes testing has become the dominant measure of competence, there is less and less room for thoughtful, nuanced writing, even at the university level. Part of what we provide at the Writing Center is a space where writers can receive honest, constructive response without high-stakes judgment. It is, in many ways, one of the purest learning environments on campus. In this learning space, we can often help writers both with their immediate writing projects, but also help them rethink their identities as competent, confident writers.
Does this mean that that we can make all of a writer’s anxieties disappear. No, I can’t promise that. (Full disclosure: I’m nervous in writing this and sending it off to my assistant director for her feedback and then publishing it online – and I’ve been writing professionally for more than thirty years. The nerves never completely go away.) What we can do, though, is offer strategies to help an individual handle new and unfamiliar writing situations effectively. And sometimes, in the course of offering these strategies, we also help students develop a more positive, and more productive, perception of themselves as “writers.”