Writing as Will

A few years ago, a former colleague of mine was planning a module in a graduate program on academic writing at another university. He asked for my advice and we talked for an hour, after which he sent me his ideas about what he was going to do. I had, of course, said that the most important thing is to get the students writing, every day if possible. So I was struck by this part of his mail:

My experience tells me that the students will not have the necessary self-discipline to write every day for several weeks. So I will orient the course towards the more ‘teachable’ aspects, including such matters as planning, structure of articles, getting published, etc., rather than towards writing as such.

Here is the substance of my response:

You learn how to write by writing. It’s the only way. So I don’t have much hope for a writing program that begins, as you seem to, by giving up on the students’ discipline. If you don’t expect them to write, you can’t expect them to learn how to write, no matter how much you teach them. But if you can get them to write every day they will get better at writing, almost regardless of what you teach them. That’s my philosophy of writing instruction in a nutshell. I guess I’m saying I don’t believe writing has any merely “teachable aspects”; writing must be trained.

Students have to learn that an academic text has recognizable parts and you can certainly teach them various all-purpose outlines (I do this). But they also have to learn that those parts must be “built” and then “assembled” into a coherent whole, and that, in order to do this well, you have to plan, not just the content of the paper, but the structure of the weeks, days, and hours that will be spent writing. You have to work on your introduction at some point, for example, then stop, and then return to it. The same goes for every other part of the paper. And the only way to get this across is to get the students to feel it in their brains and in their hands.

The students must experience the joy of composing a good prose paragraph and the (sometimes transcendent) bliss of putting several paragraphs together persuasively. If you only teach them what an academic text is, and don’t bring them into contact with the process by which a text comes into being, your chances of success are (in my humble opinion) not very high.

“My experience tells me that the students will not have the necessary self-discipline,” you say. I have the same experience, of course. But my experience also says that some students will acquire that discipline if you provide an occasion for them to do so. More importantly, those that don’t acquire this discipline won’t learn how to write (any better than they already do) anyway. Those that do, however, are learning how to write as well as they can. By turning this into a straight “teaching” module, you might think you’re making do with what’s achievable. But I fear you are settling for achieving very little.

An engagement with the student’s self-discipline is fundamentally an engagement with their “authorial” persona, their literary authority as scholars, what I sometimes call their “writing selves”. If you do not attempt to engage with that core strength (their self-discipline) you are not likely to improve the part of them that writes. That is, you won’t make them into better writers, no matter how “true” the things you will tell them may be.

I think that last point is worth emphasizing. Scholarship is difficult in many ways. It takes a lot of thought, knowledge, and sometimes courage. But the writing itself is easy; you just have to do it. It requires no heavy lifting or special skills (you already know the language). What you are developing when you are developing your writing skills (as distinct from the other skills that make you a scholar) is a competence that is, let’s say, “right next to” your basic self-discipline. Writing gets done almost exclusively by, well, doing it. The most important to muscle to train when you write is your will. Writing perhaps, just is an act of will.

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