Ways of Writing: Mine Isn’t Better Than Yours

In graduate school I had a housemate, also in my Ph.D. program, who wrote meticulous outlines and then—get this—wrote exactly that paper.

This blew my mind.

I have always been a messy, process-driven writer. I write my way into thought. There are times when I almost feel like it’s hard to create thought unless it’s coming out of my fingers. Oral exams were difficult for me because I was so attached to the words on the page that it was almost hard for me to form thoughts without the aid of a keyboard.

It is commonplace in the field of composition to say that writing is a tool for creating knowledge, not simply for recording it. Your average writing teacher takes umbrage at the idea that one does research and then “writes up” the results. This could be because as a field we want to see writing as an entree, not simply a side dish. It could be because we know there are important pedagogical values to process writing. But it could also be because we tend to naturalize or privileged the writing process that corresponds to our own cognitive style.

I have noticed that writing teachers tend to adopt a specific form of process writing and stick to it with great ferocity. Students must write outlines, must freewrite, must keep journals, must write 15 minutes a day. These are all valuable strategies, but I am not convinced that any of them work for all students.

Over years of working with graduate writers, I have seen the immense range in the way that people navigate between the thoughts in their head and the words on the page. My housemate was not an aberration; there are people who can do a considerable amount of conceptualizing and organizing using very few words. For them an outline is a rich heuristic device, whereas I would have to add explanatory paragraphs to make it meaningful. I tend use reverse outlining: pulling order out of chaos retroactively.

I am increasingly wary of imposing a consistent writing process on writers. I’m more interested in helping them bring attention to what they actually do and take an experimental approach to finding strategies that work. My job is to offer a range of tools and help the writer try them out. It would be easier if I had a magic wand or at least a set of strategies that worked for every writer.

Even when a writer is not progressing on their project, I usually find that there is a kernel of a working strategy in what they already do. People often have more self-awareness about their cognitive superpowers than they realize, even if they’re not using those powers for good. Sometimes it’s our gifts—not our deficits—that bite us in the ass. A desire to write well, for example, can transmogrify into a disabling perfectionism. The important ability to edit, applied too early, can prevent words from ever hitting the page. Bad habits are often good habits metastasized.

What works is what works for you.

Download my great resource guide for academic writers here.

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