Writing Lessons: Practicing What We Preach

As educators, we often lament the quality of our students’ writing and ponder how we might support their writing development. To that end, I recently attended an interdisciplinary pedagogical conference themed around improving student writing. One of the conference’s main objectives was to remind all of us, regardless of field, that students need our help with their writing and that we cannot burden English departments with the sole responsibility for shaping it.

The research and presentations were geared toward student writing, but I started to ask myself why I couldn’t also heed some of those lessons and be my own writing coach. Why had I failed to see that so many of the tools I use as an educator could transfer neatly to my own writing?

It hit me that I needed to start practicing what I was preaching. It wasn’t that I hadn’t heard these lessons before, but rather that I had underestimated my own ability to continue improving in each of these areas. And my underestimation became clear when I reboiled the lessons back down to the basic messages we perpetually deliver to our students.

In what follows, you’ll find two writing lessons that we’ve all heard before but that can take on new meaning when viewed through the lens of what we tell our students. A third lesson is about varying the genre in which you write. Individuals whose research revolves around technical writing or pedagogical approaches to writing have been suggesting this for a while, but it was new to me, as it might be to other academics outside that research area. Not only is varying genre something we should push our students to do, but it is also an exercise that can be valuable for us on both a personal and professional level.

Lesson No. 1: Work with your natural writing practice, not against it. This lesson is difficult because, at first glance, it seems to be at odds with the sentiment of improving, streamlining or adding efficiency to our writing. And, in fact, one of the most impactful pieces of feedback I ever received read, “Your arguments are at the end of each of your paragraphs. Copy-paste those sentences to the top of the paragraph so your reader knows what they are reading for. Let the evidence follow.” It blew my mind. Not only was the feedback spot-on, the copy-paste exercise drastically improved my article.

When we receive feedback like this that provokes a paradigm shift in our writing, our gut reaction is often to alter the way we write in future projects. It is natural for feedback like this to generate a set of inner voices that say, “OK, write your argument as the first sentence of the paragraph and then put the evidence underneath it.”

However, if we force change in our writing, it can become more convoluted. That’s what happened when I tried to overhaul my writing practice. So I reframed, reminding myself what I often attempt to convey to undergraduate students: writing is a form of thinking. Put differently, as educators we often ask students to write something as a process for idea development. In my case, my writing allowed me to examine all the evidence, analyze the data and then form a conclusion at the end of the paragraph — the writing equivalent of my research thinking.

The lesson, I realized, is that instead of trying to alter our natural writing practices and, by extension, our thinking practices, we should observe our process and work with it. The point of drafts is to write more than one of them and mold them as we go. So it’s okay to deliberately write something I know I will need to address in the editorial process. Now that I’ve recognized that my arguments are the last sentence of the paragraph, step one of my editing always includes finding the argument and moving it to the top of the paragraph.

Lesson No. 2: Don’t brag about how hard it is to write. I’m not sure if the observation I’m about to make is about my generation, our industry, our society or working adults more generally. But I’ve come to notice that people around me (and sometimes I, too) engage in a contest to see who’s the busiest, whose schedule is the most charged with useless meetings and who has the least time to do what matters to them. It seems that when we state, over and over again, that we don’t have time to write, we manifest that. A colleague of mine recently told me that they had no intention of writing anything in the first year of their new job because the transition would occupy all their time and energy. I wondered if this is a form of busyness bragging.

Here, we can change the narrative if we return to another undergraduate writing lesson. Many students will complain that they were not given the gift of writing talent. In response, we often remind them that, while some people have a certain facility for writing, everyone has to practice. Writing is a skill that we can all sharpen with time, energy and effort.

The same is true for making time for writing. No one is given the gift of time for their writing. Carving out time for it takes energy and effort, just like developing the skill does. When viewed this way, not having time for writing is just not having practice at making it. So to my colleague, I would say, “You are manifesting your nonwriting.”

Additionally, we don’t have to make life-changing progress to keep contact with our writing. If you are strategic about a writing plan — let’s say, 30 minutes three times a week for a total of an hour and a half — setting aside time consistently over a period of time adds up. (In our example, it adds up to approximately 45 hours over the course of the academic year. That’s significant.)

Tip: budget five minutes at the end of each writing session to leave yourself a note about where you are leaving off and what you’ll do next. That way, when you reopen the Word document, you can dive right in.

Lesson No. 3: Write in different genres. When presented to me as an educator, this lesson was about refining undergraduates’ understanding of concepts like register and audience in their writing. It is often hard for students to see that writing an email, a blog post and or an academic paper require finely tuned attention to the context. The suggested solution was to ask students to engage in various forms of writing. When reframed for our purposes, however, this tip is mostly about fulfillment and writing satisfaction.

For example, writing articles for this audience is a different process from that of my academic writing, and it needs to be. When I started my blog and then began writing for Inside Higher Ed as Junior Prof, I wanted to draw attention to the needs of newly minted assistant professors, document my mistakes so that others could avoid them and create a supportive community for individuals who, like me, were trying to decipher the unwritten rules of a journey on the tenure track. Here, I write with a specific set of goals in mind: to inspire thoughtful discussion about life in higher education, to chronicle what it looks like to be a first-year assistant professor in 2019 and, if I’m lucky, to help a few future academics navigate the tenure-track journey as they chart their own courses in the years to come. As I write, I ask myself both how readers at the more senior levels of professorship may have had different experiences in the past and also what things I desperately wanted to know as a Ph.D. candidate about to start this journey.

Both these mind-sets are very different from the type of dialogue involved in the typical peer-review process of academic writing. What I did not anticipate, however, is how fulfilling it has been to take on these kinds of missions in my writing and cultivate a new audience in this genre.

The same could be true of writing projects for a nonprofit organization, an industry report, an activist group or a blog that draws on your love of one of your hobbies. It is true of Twitter. Not everyone is on Academic Twitter, and not everyone needs to be. But tweeting is a form of very short writing, and it prompts immediate audience  engagement. While none of these activities should replace our academic writing, they can provide writing-related fulfillment and thus enhance our motivation to keep at the arduous revise-and-resubmit process.

Furthermore, we can engage in a variety of writing activities that would still fall under the category “academic” but are lower stakes than primary-author publication. For some people that might be writing a book review. The benefits of undertaking book reviews include staying current on the research of others, practicing the skill of being concise, bolstering one’s service to the profession, fomenting goodwill among colleagues in your field and, sometimes, getting a free book out of the writing experience.

Similarly, I have colleagues who write about their research for a popular audience. That is an excellent way to unsilo one’s research and expose scholarly projects to a broad, sometimes skeptical, audience. I am not among the many faculty members who write for mainstream news outlets, who blog about their research, who keep a journal or who have a creative writing practice, but the possibility of writing-related fulfillment exists in each of these spaces.

In sum, we can enhance our relationship to writing by revisiting the principles we use as teachers and applying them to our own work. These three have stood out to me, but I’m confident there are more to be learned. So wherever you are in your writing journey, ask yourself if the advice you give your students holds lessons for you, too.

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