Every now and then, someone will ask me, “How did you get so good at writing?” Most of the time, it’s someone who has never seen me write and has never read any of my writing. The person will assume that, because I’m a Writing Fellow, I must be a perfect writer. It is because of this question that I feel the need to divulge to you—blog reader and (hopefully) fan of Writing Fellows—a secret: Writing Fellows struggle with writing too.
It’s true. I can’t take it back. (Or, I could, but that would destroy the integrity of this blog.) Writing Fellows struggle with writing too. That is not to say that Writing Fellows are bad writers. A Writing Fellow is a developing writer, just like you and your little sister and Margaret Atwood and every other writer on the planet. A Writing Fellow will agonize over word choice and clarity and evidence. A Writing Fellow will pour hours into an introductory paragraph, just to be unhappy with it. As a Writing Fellow and as a writer, I will confess that I have put many hours into this single blog post, playing with voice and style.
Be not afraid. I do not want to undermine the foundation of the Writing Center. It is not my intention to destroy your vision of us Writing Fellows—quite the opposite actually. Writing Fellows may struggle with writing, but it is this struggle that makes them so reliable and so relatable.
As you probably already know, Writing Fellows go through a semester of training; this class is called “The Writer’s Process.” It is what it sounds like. Writing Fellows spend hours upon hours dissecting, theorizing and philosophizing the process that links thoughts in the mind to words on the paper. We write about ourselves, we write about our own writing, we write about fellowing our own writing, we write about thinking about writing, and we think about writing about writing and write that down too. (It’s a lot of writing.) Another secret: this endless cycle of writing is the writer’s process; it’s the process of always wanting to rethink and revise and rewrite. Sound familiar? That’s why none of us are ever done with our training and why so many Writing Fellows still find it difficult to write.
Why write so much if it’s never finished? What all this writing reveals is that the process of writing is different for every writer; every writer has a unique series of steps that get them from their first idea to their last sentence. The reason that Writing Fellows seem so coherent and confident is because while they may wrestle with writing, they are comfortable with their writing process—and you should be too!
The personal process of writing is vital. It can be very tempting to shut yourself in the library and write it the night before like your roommate or your best friend. But that might not help you write. You probably already know what helps you think and that’s what helps you write. It’s hard to take the time but finding your own writing process is like unlocking a secret cheat code—for life. Not only will you feel more comfortable with writing, but you’ll feel a lot more confident too.
My own personal writing process is very different from the lock-yourself-in-the-library method. I’m so invested in writing that I need to get myself into a zone, where I spend hours in one place, just writing. It may not be the most efficient or the most popular method, but as long as it keeps working, it’s my writing process.
I start with a lot of freewriting and prep work. Writing my ideas all down in a notebook or on a blank word document really helps me uncensor my thinking. No idea is too extreme or weird, and oftentimes this first activity will lead to a thesis or some form of an argument. I usually start with some questions and attempt to answer them as I go along. In my last paper for Critical Writing, I chose to write about Borges’ Garden of Forking Paths. As you can see from my preliminary thinking, I also tied in some theory from Saussure with lots of arrows and questions and not a lot of answers.
I’m also really into taking notes during conferences with professors, just like I would during a cubicle conference. Professors often use particular terms, either technical or creative, that I like to keep in mind while I write my first draft. For this particular essay, my professor gave me some tips on how to structure the essay.
Let’s move to the space. I love writing while lounging on my bed, especially for longer papers. I usually spread out my notebooks and texts around me, with gel pens and crunchy snacks on hand. If it’s late I’ll have some tea around to keep me going, and if it’s not, I’ll probably just have my water bottle. Lately I’ve been plugging in my rainbow twinkle lights (leftover from the holidays), because I love soft, fun lighting.
After I set up all my stuff—which might take forever, because I am a procrastinator—I usually turn on some upbeat music (hello, Lion King soundtrack and Mat Kearney) or set a timer to force myself to just start. I start by typing all my evidence on a blank document, and then analyzing each quote, piece by piece. Each of these pieces contributes to some part of the body content, and soon it becomes a matter of rearranging things and adding transitions.
It becomes very difficult to me to think when my words are confined to a computer screen, so I like to keep my notebook on the side, just to clarify ideas and summarize my progress. The gel pens become necessary for this activity, because color-coding my thoughts often reveals some internal organization or structure in my mind.
As you can see, I keep a personal monologue running, complete with doodles and irrelevant thoughts. If I’m still struggling to connect my evidence together, more brainstorming can conjure those links. I think every piece is worth writing down, because even though not all of these pieces include intellectual content, they keep me actively engaged in the process of writing.
The colors also draw connections between different paragraphs by tagging analysis that belongs to more than one piece of evidence. These connections lead to a more cohesive conclusion and analysis beyond a single quote. For this particular writing assignment, I used a different color for each paragraph, so that I could clearly see when evidence belonged to more than one claim. Sometimes, as in the case above, I also draw faces and assess my own understanding of the material. This activity is incredibly meta, as it’s a process of fellowing myself as a Writing Fellow.
After conclusions comes the introduction, my last step in writing. Introductions are like a road map, and I can’t draw a proper map without researching the destinations first. After the introduction balances context and claim, I try to use a witty title that segways into my intellectual topic. Then I let it sit.
Waiting on a paper is very difficult to do at the last minute, which is why I have to force myself to write things early. Reading it with fresh eyes helps me see typos and discontinuity. Often I send a copy to my dad or best friend to read over, just like another Writing Fellow would do. After I’ve come to accept what I’ve written—it’s not perfect! It’s never perfect!—I print it out and give it a kiss. The paper leaves my power.
Some writers need absolute silence and no computers, only pen and paper. Some writers need heavy metal music and a pack of cigarettes. Some writers have to sit in one place until they feel accomplishment; other writers need to take a break every half hour. As my roommate says about relationships, sleep schedules and fashion sense, “You do you.” I’m not saying that you need to go buy a bunch of gel pens. I’m not telling you that you need to put up holiday lights and listen to Alicia Keys. I’m not suggesting that you start writing like me at all. I’m just revealing my own writing style as I find it, in the hopes that you might feel like discovering your own.