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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

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Practice Makes Writers

Elizabeth Stark’s observation about writers’ tendency not to practice their art interests me a lot. I’ve been a writing center nerd for well over a decade, struggling to get college students to explore their writing processes, to engage with the page.

What students care about is product: getting the assignment done and getting a good grade. They don’t give a crap about practicing and/or don’t trust that practice will help them, which makes sense given that they probably weren’t taught to practice. Some of the students I’ve worked with assume that they are excellent writers already, unaware that the A’s they received in high school convey as much or more about their obedient classroom behavior than the quality of their prose.

Most, though, believe they aren’t writers. I don’t mean that they doubt their current status as writers. I mean they believe they simply aren’t writers and won’t ever be, that they lack the gift, and that no amount of practice would help them find it. (See Carol Dweck‘s work on fixed mindset vs growth mindset.)

Identifying as non-writers manifests in some annoying behavior and habits. For students who think they’ll never be textual artists, written communication is just a tool to achieve other goals. Writing is a product that should be cheap and easy to come by. Students protest their instructors’ seemingly unnecessary critiques. “You know what I mean,” they rail. “What I wrote in my paper is close enough.” The stakes aren’t high, or they shouldn’t be, they assume, and they’ve got better things to do with their time. Once they’re writing for “real” purposes in the “real” world–to get into grad school, to get published, to cut the deals that will make them zillionaires–they’ll be able to whip out the writing with no problem.

Of course, the practice they get in college-level coursework is supposed to help them prepare for the “real” stuff. But there isn’t much time to have students practice in class, and without modeling that behavior, it’s unrealistic to expect many of them to practice on their own “for fun.” So we give them assignments, expecting that will get them to practice. Maybe we have them write a draft or two, but again, there’s not much time, so we only ask for the “completed” assignment. The course becomes an obstacle course, and the student is given the textual equivalent of impossible tasks. From a standing position, leap over this 8-foot wall. No, you can’t have a rope. Just figure it out.

Writing in response to an assignment for one evaluator isn’t much fun, especially if the evaluator focuses on sentence-level errors without helping the inexperienced writer develop what s/he really means to say. Even if the instructor uses a peer review model, students tend to focus on sentence-level errors, too (that’s what they’ve been taught), and, please, they know who’s got the final say on grading. Their attention is directed to the instructor: What does s/he want? In a situation like this, the stakes become very high, but so immediate and localized that the student just wants to figure out how to get over the wall so the annoyance will end. If she sprains an ankle or cracks a few ribs, she does care as long as she has enough strength to hobble away.

I don’t blame students for seeing their options as limited to either pushing back or giving in. I pushed back a little as a student, but was pretty obedient overall. Before my grad writing program, the last teacher to encourage writing practice was Mrs. Johnson, my first grade teacher. She wanted us to play and enjoy writing. She made it fun, but it’s more accurate to say that she helped me find the fun and to create my own purpose.

Because of her, I usually have a notebook and pen with me. I think better if I can write things down. It’s a helpful habit, but it’s too responsive and/or compulsive to work as writing practice. I have trouble getting myself to practice. The stakes feel too high to just let the words flow. My internal editor digs in, asks in the voice of anyone who has ever read and judged my writing since Mrs. Johnson, “What’s the point?” I start clawing at the wall, focused on the top, forgetting that I don’t have to follow anyone else’s rules and could just go around.

Occasionally, I can have fun with that kind of mind game and get some good practice and maybe even some positive results. In that case, I’m really just doing it for my own enjoyment. I take a break from caring about audience (Peter Elbow would be so proud). I start writing a sentence along the bottom of the wall, and somehow, before I realize it, I’m straddling the top, looking down on the paragraphs I’ve written.

Anyone who’s ever written a grocery list assumes they’re qualified to give an expert opinion on writing. They’re entitled to their opinions, but unless they’re helping me build on what I’m doing well, they can piss off. They’re inclined to see practice as a waste of paper and disk space. No writer needs that shit. Quality doesn’t improve without a large quantity of words. Not caring about every result doesn’t prevent writers from developing skill. We need to keep going, doing it incrementally, whether or not anyone is watching, with a blended sense of freedom and responsibility.

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2 Responses

  1. […] I’ve been mulling over this and the need to practice my craft since my friend Jim wrote an interesting blog on the topic of practice last week. (And Jim, after this blog, I promise I’ll also try to […]

  2. […] I don’t mean simply forming letters with ink on paper. That’s how long I’ve been trying to communicate ideas that are at least somewhat “mine.” All that practice hasn’t left me feeling confident about what I do when I write. I have come […]

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