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Archive for the month “June, 2013”

“Good Writing” Policy: An Exploration of What It Means to “Get” Writing

Ben Bogart, Consultant

I’ve noticed a disheartening battle cry rippling through the Writing Center this summer, and it’s one that I worry might be chanted out in the world beyond our doors:  “I’m not very good at writing.”  Sometimes it’s translated as, “I’m not very good at English,” or the even more frustrated, “I just don’t get writing.”  It’s always offered with a smile, and maybe some nervous eyes fluttering around the room, as though the speaker has just confessed something shocking or controversial (I would expect the same body language from someone offering up, “I’m not really good at using my turn signal,” or “I don’t really like your Mom”).  And every time I cringe a bit.  But it’s not because of what the person has said so much as it is the feeling of defeat that they’re trying so hard to convey.  There seems to be a lot behind a statement like, “I’m not very good at writing,” and I’d like to take this opportunity to explore what I hear when each time that statement is uttered.

Bogart PictureYou just don’t get writing.  Okay, I suppose I understand.  There are a lot of things I don’t get—things like cooking and mathematics and computer programming and football.  We all have our natural talents, and if you’ve had enough life experience to warrant the claim that you simply don’t get writing, I’m guessing that it’s because you do get something else—something likely just as important.  People who tell me that they don’t get writing are usually quick to offer examples of past failures to prove to me that they really don’t get it, and so I know a fair amount of these statements are backed by solid evidence.  But more so than with any other talent that one may or may not “get,” what I generally hear when someone tells me that they don’t do well with writing is an echo of someone else telling them that they don’t do well with it.  And that bothers me.

Let me try to explain.  If you don’t have wild success in the cooking/baking world, you’re likely to know on your own:  you bake a cake, and it comes out flat and tasting of baking soda, and as you slide it forlornly into the trash you mutter to yourself, “I just don’t get baking.”  Fair enough.  That cake wasn’t your masterpiece, and if anybody wants to claim that you do get baking, you can just have them dig out a sample from the trash can and see for themselves.  Consider the opposite end of the spectrum:  you bake a cake and it’s just delicious.  You couldn’t stop licking the spoon you used to mix the batter, you had pictures up on Facebook before you’d even set the timer, and now that it’s done, you’re thinking that you might just eat the whole thing yourself.  A friend comes over and tries it, and spits it out immediately.  “Maybe you just don’t get baking,” she offers with a smile, hoping to lighten the blow.  Do you buy it?  I’m guessing (and really hoping) that the answer is, “no.”  You tasted that cake.  You fell in love with it before it was even fully done.  You know cake, and that cake, sir or m’am, that cake was good cake.  If you’re like my Aunt Sharon, you continue making that cake forever, trotting it out at birthday parties and anniversaries and holidays, and while everyone else politely folds your cake into their napkins when you’re not looking, you know deep down that that cake is pretty good cake.

And yet if we play this same scenario out with writing—particularly with scholarly writing—I don’t know that the same confidence generally plays out.  You write a paper that you love (couldn’t stop licking the spoon, posting pictures on Facebook, etc.), turn it in to a professor, and it comes back with a letter grade lower than you expected and some kind of plus/minus code that conveys to you nothing except that you “don’t get writing.”  This is where even Aunt Sharon, I believe, would falter.  She might still have confidence in the cake, but that paper that just came back to her has convinced her that she really doesn’t know what she’s doing when she tries to put words together on paper.  While she will certainly continue to bake with pride (and, ironically, to write about it on Facebook), she’s somehow been shut down as far as the writing goes.  And that’s not fair.

Before we go on, I’ll certainly admit the analogy isn’t quite perfect.  The cake respondent was just a casual friend, where the paper respondent was a professional.  Sure, you caught me.  The teacher that responded to the writing didn’t actually say Aunt Sharon didn’t “get” writing; only implied it.  Yeah, okay.  To further your point, I’ll confess that I don’t even have an aunt named Sharon.  But at a very basic level, I believe the comparison works to illuminate for us a couple of important thoughts about writing.

1.)     Most of us have more experience subjectively evaluating cake than writing.  It’s a simple fact.  There’s less at stake with a cake (this sounds like the beginning to a Wallace Stevens poem) than there might be with writing—it either tastes good or it doesn’t.  We learn very easily how to distinguish between the two.  But how do we distinguish between good writing and bad writing?  What is bad writing, even?  Anyone who’s ever been forced to read Shakespeare in high school and then try to explain why it’s so great to the teacher understands very well that taste in baking (though surely complex in its own right) is a bit easier to grasp than taste in writing.

2.)    Writing seems to be connected to our identity as people in a way that baking just isn’t.  If you bake a bad cake, you might just be impatient or distracted.  Maybe you spent more time licking the spoon than you did actually mixing the stuff.  You made a bad cake, and at the absolute worst, you have to go buy a cake from the grocery store and feel a temporary sense of failure.  But when you write a bad paper?  Well, you might as well look forward to a future of digging ditches or occupying various institutional buildings.  At best, you just don’t get writing.  At worst, you’re stupid, deficient, incapable—all words meant to designate that you don’t belong.  That’s pretty heavy for someone who just wanted to tell you about the themes they picked up in The Great Gatsby.  If we treated cakes in this way, a trip to the bakery would be the most nerve-wracking experience of one’s week.

3.)    Writing fulfills a multitude of purposes, and thus has a multitude of forms, in a way that cakes just can’t match.  I mean, I guess there are wedding cakes and birthday cakes.  You could have devil’s food or angel’s food or carrot cake or any of the other varieties that exist out there.  DQ has ice cream cake, and I’ve heard that in certain places you can even get “naughty cakes,” but at a very basic level, cake is cake, right?  The varied occasions that you can associate cake with are all very different, but usually the cake is fairly similar—just modified in color or flavoring or . . . well, shape.  But writing is way more varied than that.  There’s writing that tries to inspire, writing that tries to argue a point, writing that attempts to get people to laugh, writing that is requested by others, writing that hopes to free and entrap . . . the list goes on.  The occasions are certainly different as well:  there’s writing that is meant to be shared with close friends, writing that is meant to be shared with colleagues, writing that is directed at complete strangers, and every group in between.  And what’s important is that these forms are so wildly different that one can be quite good in one area, (say, poetry), and still have no clue what they’re doing when it comes to another (say, legal documents).  So if you get disparaging comments on your Shakespeare report, does that mean that your Facebook post from the previous night is also worthless?  No.  It really doesn’t.  What it means is simply that you have more experience reading and responding to Facebook than Shakespeare, and I believe that’s okay.

4.)    Professional opinions in writing, as in baking, are still purely subjective.  Bottom line: they’re all opinions.  As in, “Well, that’s like, your opinion, man.”  If a teacher tells you that your paper was crap, the odds are that there’s another teacher within that same area code that would disagree.  Moreover, maybe that teacher had just made the exact same comments on 15 papers before yours, and so when it got written on yours, it came out a little less than friendly.  Subjectivity, by definition, can be colored by all kinds of stimuli that you just can’t predict.  So in the same way that you should doubt the opinion of someone who just got dumped and decided to tell you your cake was bad, you should question the opinion of someone who tells you your writing is not that hot.  That person likely didn’t mean to label you for the rest of time.

I could go on and on about my great cake analogy, but I’ve probably made my case here.  The point is that, when you tell me that you’re “not very good at writing,” or that you “just don’t get English,” I’m hearing you say that you’re accepting the evaluation of someone who told you that.  They were probably older than you, and they probably said it in a really convincing way, and you just took it and decided to share it with me in the middle of the Writing Center.  And I hate that.  Because you’re not bad at writing, and even if you don’t happen to “get” it, it’s not like that’s a brand that needs to be burned into your forehead.

We all write, and increasingly because of the new media outlets that are out there (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Myspace, to say nothing of text messages), we write a lot.  It’s a tool that we use to communicate our thoughts, and we generally do it without much trouble.  It’s when we load writing up with all of our insecurities and past evaluations and uncertain expectations (commonly known as “writing for the academy”) that all of a sudden we start second-guessing ourselves and falling back on those old proclamations made by people who likely didn’t intend for them to become self-fulfilling prophecies.  And that’s too bad, because just like someone telling you that your cake was bad should be a thought that is easily swept away and forgotten, so too should someone telling you that you wrote a bad paper.

For all my Shakespeare and Gatsby references, it should be clear that I think this happens a lot in high school.  I’m sure it happens at the university as well.  I want to make it just as clear that I don’t think it’s any high school teacher’s intention to do that.  Maybe you had a grumpy teacher.  Or, more likely, maybe you just had a teacher you thought was grumpy, and whose comments you read as a personal attack.  Consider all those cake advisors:  feel free to save all those things they told you about oxford commas and pronouns; certainly save the uplifting and generous comments they gave you.  But please, just forget the sharp criticisms.  I hate to break this talk of naughty cakes and fictional aunts for some sappy cliché, but please keep in mind that you are the only one that can hold yourself back in life.  If you let yourself believe that your writing is bad, it may be that old, second-period English teacher whose voice you hear, but it’s you that has clung to it.

I’m declaring now, with absolutely no power to do so, that the Writing Center is only for good writers—that is, people who have the confidence to admit to themselves that they are good writers in some genre or are willing to work to be good writers.  If you’re feeling frustrated that you can’t get your thoughts out on paper in the way you planned, rest comfortably knowing that this is a feeling all “good writers” have.  I can point you to famous authors that are studied in upper-level literature courses who have felt the same way you did.  The only difference might be that they didn’t listen to those people who discouraged their ability, and you did.  You didn’t do so hot on that term paper?  Well, think about the song lyrics you wrote that one time that made you feel accomplished.  Or that report on your cat that you did in second grade—the one that got a smiley face sticker on it.  Or that Facebook post that blew up with 27 responses from your friends in just an hour.  And then try again.

What you probably mean when you say, “I’m not very good at writing” is, “I’m not comfortable with academic writing yet.”  That’s completely fine.  Your friendly neighborhood Writing Center consultant is here to help.  It takes practice, and we’ll work through it together.  It took us a long time to “get it” too.  But don’t say that you aren’t very good at writing.  Because we only take good writers here now.

Timely Tips for the Personal Statement/Application Essay

MichelleThings are pretty slow around the Writing Center this time of year, but we have had plenty of recent or soon-to-be graduates working on personal statements or applications for graduate school.
To be honest, writing a personal statement or similar application material can be a little awkward, especially when there isn’t a specific prompt beyond “Tell us about yourself and why you want to pursue a career in this field.” It can be unnatural for some people to talk about themselves in the self-appraising manner of this genre of writing. The openness of the requirements—combined with the necessity of “selling yourself” as an applicant to a committee of people you’ve never met—leaves many clients in the Writing Center unsure of whether they’ve written something unique and compelling or ordinary and boring.
Below is some of the most common advice I have given to clients lately:
1. Prove it. Don’t just say you want to be a doctor because you love to help people (or whatever your motivation is). Give the application committee some evidence to believe that. For example, show the committee that you’ve already been trying to help people, as evidence that you’ll continue to be motivated to do that in the future. What has caused you to want to help people, how have you been doing that already, and why do you want to continue helping in the future?
Also, you can move from recounting your resume of past activities to talking about the specifics of your plan for the future. For example, I recently had a client applying to dental school who described a program he plans to implement in his own dental practice one day. Maybe you haven’t thought quite that far ahead, but you should still be able to prove to your committee that you have thought about how your motivations will play out in future action.
2. Connect experiences/activities you’ve done to who you are as an applicant. I often have clients who include compelling personal stories separated from a seemingly disconnected list of qualifications. They start off telling about growing up in poverty and how it has motivated them to be social workers for the disadvantaged, but then spend several paragraphs listing off every organization or job they participated in during college.
However, who you are and the things you have done shouldn’t be divorced from each other in your personal statement. If you’re going to include a significant job experience or volunteer opportunity in your personal statement, make sure to connect it back to how it has contributed to the person you are that’s applying to the program you want to be a part of. If the relevance seems flimsy, perhaps that activity is better fit for your resume or CV than your personal statement. Stick to activities that are more than qualifications; you want to use activities/experiences that fit in with the larger story you’re telling about who you are and why you want to be a lawyer, doctor, professor, social worker etc.
3. Watch transitions between paragraphs. Sometimes clients have a good handle on selecting and connecting experiences that have contributed to the people and professionals they are and are becoming. Instead, what seems disconnected in their writing is the relationship between those experiences. These personal statements jump from one internship, volunteer activity, or life experience to the next without demonstrating to the reader how those activities come together as a whole. Often that’s because it can be hard to reflect on the connections between seemingly discrete life events; however, working to create transitions between paragraphs are essential for helping the reader understand a cohesive picture of the message of your personal statement.
Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) offers lots of help with transitioning between paragraphs at the following link: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/574/1/. But sometimes, the most effective method of working on transitions is to discuss it with someone else who can help you identify and verbalize the connections between your paragraphs.
4. Find someone in your field who can read over your personal statement for you. We can give you lots of tips and things to think about here in the Writing Center, but it also helps to find a professional in your desired field who has already been admitted to and completed law school, dental school, etc. They’ve already been through the application process successfully and are often more in tune with the writing conventions of their field than other people. Also, they’re often happy to help potential future colleagues.
There are many web pages that offer other advice for personal statements or statements of purpose that often go along with graduate school applications. Here are a few helpful resources:

Books about Writing: Some Summer Reading Recommendations

Ashly Bender, Assistant Director (with some crowd-sourced inclusions)

Ashly_Version_3Lists of must-read books are pretty common around this time of year. Summer after all is when we—theoretically at least—get a break from school and sometimes work so that we can indulge in the more relaxing pleasures of life. Oprah has a list, the New York Time’s has a list, People’s Magazine… you get the idea. As you start collecting tomes to craft your own list, here are a few the Writing Center (and some of our closest friends) would recommend.

First, a caveat. Many other lists you may peruse will likely focus on tantalizing or even soul-searching fictions, maybe the most recent non-fiction adventure thriller, or a witty collection of essays. This list on the other hand collects five books that explore the craft and the role of writing. These books are recommendations for those who want to push their writing to the next level by engaging in some thoughtful and reflective conversation with established authors who are excited about sharing and learning techniques to improve their art. Many of these books are written by creative writers, but at least one of the following books is not. That’s important, because, as we well know, the art of writing encompasses much more than just novels, poems, and the like. So, without further ado and in no particular order…

  1. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

If I had to pick one word to describe this book, it would be “reassuring.” Much of Bird by Bird explores the painful and drawn-out process of writing. It doesn’t shy away from the hard parts and addresses them with a refreshing frankness, as demonstrated in the chapter on “shitty first drafts.” Despite embracing what seems to be the negative aspect of the craft, Lamott similarly emphasizes the great reward that comes from sharing your written work, even in its early stages. All the great advice in the book is made even more engaging by the illustrative examples Lamott includes from her own professional and personal life.

2. On Writing by Stephen King

Authored by one of the most prolific writers of our time, this short book offers not only writing advice but also insight into a mind who has left an indelible mark on our culture—if not our own minds. King’s classic thriller stories have kept many of us up at night, perhaps repeating “I don’t believe, I don’t believe” if you experienced IT too young, as I did. This book is the next best thing to learning at the feet of the masters—or your writing instructors. Plus, it could be both fun and enlightening to read in conjunction with some of King’s novels and short stories.

3. Literacy in American Lives by Deborah Brandt

This book focuses more on role of writing and reading practices in United States rather than necessarily delivering writing advice. Still, I consistently advise writers that the best way to improve your writing is to know your own habits and style so that you can make effective changes. This includes your experiences with reading and writing throughout your life, and possibly the experiences of your family members. Brandt’s book, informed by hundreds of interviews done in Wisconsin and the American Midwest, traces the histories of individuals and families to offer insights about our expectations and beliefs about writing and reading.

4. Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

Regular readers of the Writing Center’s Facebook page will likely not be surprised by Bradbury’s inclusion on this list. I’m especially fond of him. This fondness stems not only from my reading of his work, but from listening to his impassioned speeches about the art of writing. In a recent commencement speech he delivered, Bradbury argued that he was so good at writing because he loved all the things he wrote about and because he loved so many things. He called himself the World’s Greatest Lover but also invited his listeners to challenge him for the title. I have not read this collection of essays yet (it’s on my own summer reading list), I expect to find these essays as filled conviction and inspiration as his speech and the beauty of experiencing his writing first hand.

5. Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams (and Gregory Colomb)

In contrast to other books on this list, this book is a more instructional, at least in terms of traditional expectations. It is in fact a short collection of lessons on crafting clear writing. This is a good book for readers who are aiming to learn tactics and apply them to their writing without as much of the inspirational recollection of personal writing experiences that can be found in the previous four. Since this is another book on my “to buy” list, I will share that this book made the list because it was recommended to me by a prolific professor who happens to edit books before they are published. It is one of the books she regularly recommends to the authors she works with on the publishing side of her career. Can’t get much higher recommendation than that, right?

These five books are just a slice of the range of smart and very useful books on this topic. What other books might you recommend? What other books would you like to read on this topic? Let’s get this summer rolling—or reading, as the case may be.

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