Writers are Made not Born

Cathryn A Manduca
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published Feb 1, 2010
John Muir Last fall while watching the new Ken Burns series on the history of our national parks, America's Best Idea, I was stunned to find out that John Muir didn't like to write. He is quoted in the documentary as saying words to the effect of 'A life of writing is like a glacier, endless grinding away' (I can't seem to find the exact quote on the internet -so if you have better luck let me know)

Writing is tremendously important in academia. A friend of mine who has been a senior level administrator once commented to me that when faculty don't achieve tenure, sometimes it reflects that fact that they don't really like to write. I shuddered because I hated writing as a college student. Imagine my surprise when recently, contemplating the need to put together another blog, I realized that I really enjoy writing. Just as many people feel that they are born good or bad at math, I thought you were born good or bad at writing -- and I was bad. What happened?

When I think back, this wasn't really a miracle. First, I had to overcome two rather substantial misconceptions: 1) I thought that writing was the task of putting words on paper. Somehow, I didn't catch that the real work was in figuring out what to say. Once I learned this, then I had license to take time walking about outside trying to find the ideas before I sat down with pen and paper. 2) I thought that everyone else had more or less the same ideas in their head as I did. Therefore, in order not to insult or bore the reader, I should start my thesis assuming this knowledge and recording only the highest level thinking in the paper. Needless to say, this didn't lead to clarity in presenting my ideas. These misconceptions reflected a disconnect between the notion of writing as an act, and the thinking that underpins it. In retrospect, if I had talked to more people about their thinking and their writing, I would have learned this much faster. So now when I am called to help people with writing, I make a point of talking as much about the thinking/writing process as I do about the words on the page.

Second, I had some major skill problems. I didn't really understand that all the rules of grammar should be applied in my papers. I didn't understand how to make an argument. I didn't really understand that scientific papers were arguments. My freshman roommate went through my papers for a semester fixing the grammar and encouraging me to use topic sentences. One of my thesis advisors, Hugh Taylor, marked up my arguments in multiple colors with incredibly valuable comments, and my then boyfriend, now husband, spent hours reading letters and papers helping me to develop skill with both argument and tone. I had excellent writing teachers.

Third, I was terrified of a big empty pad of paper. Writing papers made my stomach hurt. This still happens sometimes, but I've got enough experience to know that if I just get started and blurt out a few hundred words (usually to be thrown out and rewritten when the paper was closer to finished) it will stop. If it is really bad, I take it 500 words at a time until I get rolling. And when the first draft totally sucks, I know that it is possible that it will get better in the second draft. And, sometimes I now know, people actually like what I wrote and they tell me about it -- and this makes a little pain worthwhile. These are issues of confidence, the realm of the affective domain. Getting past all of this was really about writing a lot, which took some folks encouraging me along the way.

Thinking like an educator, I needed to develop confidence, skill, and stronger metacognition to support my writing. How do we make these things happen for lots of students, or all students, so they leave college comfortable expressing themselves in words?

Over the past year, I have gotten to know some of the leaders in the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) movement: John Bean, Carol Rutz, and Bill Condon. John has written the bible of WAC: Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. WAC, which is founded on the notion that students should learn and practice writing in the context of their regular courses, helps students become comfortable, competent writers as part of their academic experience. It is a good strategy for giving students lots of encouraging practice - addressing my third point above.

Carol, who has engaged Carleton faculty in numerous workshops to counter the argument that faculty outside of English are not prepared to teach writing, tells me that there are three things that are really important for faculty to know:
  • students need to get feedback, revise, and get feedback again.
  • assignments need to be structured and sequenced so that students can build their writing skills over the course of the semester
  • assignments need to be realistically matched to the students ability and to the time that is available.
This is the kind of advice that helps all of us be better writing teachers in our courses developing students skill.

Bill who led the WAC program at Washington State University, has explored mechanisms for teaching and evaluating the development of critical thinking skills in students writing. His Critical Thinking Rubric is a tool that faculty can use with student's writing to focus on the thinking behind the words. I think that this has a lot of potential for helping students with the kinds of misconceptions I started with, as well as for developing stronger metacognition for both thinking and writing. I've used this rubric to score oral presentations at the end of the term. Perhaps the most important part of that exercise was forcing me to articulate what I was looking for in these presentation and how it related to more general ideas about critical thinking. This helped me articulate the connections between what I was seeking in this class, and what students are being asked to do in other disciplines. Talking about critical thinking and scientific thinking in these kinds of terms can only help students with metacognition and transfer between classes.

Writing this essay by the fire as a way of having fun makes me ever grateful to those who propelled me down the path to liking writing (even the ones I cursed at the time). Writing, like math, is an essential skill in a knowledge economy. An ease with writing is one of the most important things our students can have when they leave college. WAC and other program focused on teaching writing provide tools for us to use in teaching our students about writing. It is a good thing that writers can be made and not just born.

Writers are Made not Born --Discussion  

Writing, like training for an athletic event, has to be practiced early and often (by our students and ourselves). And the intensity and duration of writing/training should be varied to realize the many modes of writing used for different purposes: reflective, exploratory, analytic, synthetic; for different audiences; of different lengths and formats.

I'd also like to emphasize the importance of the corallary to writing: reading. I just don't think that our students read enough these days--not widely enough in terms of exposure to topics and style; not deeply enough in terms of critically engaging the ideas presented, nor making connections with the larger body of knowledge. This latter point has a metacognitive component because in reading students need to continually ask the question "Do I know that the ideas presented agree with what I otherwise know to be true?" Reading widely in the literature (and yes, printed material pre-Web) leads to good writing as students become familiar with appropriate use of geological vocabularies, style of presentation acceptable to the community, and the underlying content knowledge that informs our Science. Chuck Goodwin writes about the skills needed to help novices become masters in our "community of practice", and reading and writing are essential.

In the hurly-burly of my day-to-day life, I cherish the few moments sequestered away when I can write something new. It's a privelege to have the latitude to take the time to think deeply and to commit ideas to text. Sometimes I take a guilty pleasure by starting the day with a writing session before the rest of the world comes rudely crashing in. Mostly, I submit to the demands of my "day job" and the writing gets pushed back to another day. But ultimately, writing does result in a sense of deep satisfaction when ideas become real when shared through the written word. I hope that my students will all realize the joys of writing in their own personal and professional lives.


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This post was edited by Kim Kastens on Feb, 2010
Part of the problem is that teaching or rather coaching writing is extremely labor intensive. I watch my collaborator at the Columbia Journalism School, a brilliant and award-winning teacher, work her way through the papers and masters projects of our co-advised environmental journalism students. Each student gets hours and hours of editing at every scale from organization and structure down to selection of individual words, backed up by more hours and hours of one-on-one discussion of the students' ideas, reporting and writing. From Cathy's post above it sounds like she was fortunate to find a series of scientist-writing coaches who had the skill and took the time to do the same for her.

The process of teaching writing does not seem to be easily scalable or amenable to short-cuts. At one time, my older daughter Holly was very interested in writing fiction, and indeed she wrote two novellas through something called National Novel Writers' Month and had a poem or two published on a web site for kids. In pursuit of this interest, she took a creative writing course through Columbia's summer program for teenagers. Even with the staff discount and even with her living at home, I paid an arm and a leg for this six-week course--and it was a complete scam. As far as I can tell, the teacher did no editing or critiquing of the students' work at all. The students wrote, and then they read their work aloud in class, and the other students critiqued it. Holly's take on this was that this bunch of 14 year olds had nothing to tell her that she didn't already know, and that their advice was worthless. It looks to me that this "creative writing" program, or perhaps just this one teacher, was trying to teach writing on the cheap, without investing the necessary hours of skilled coaching-time from a master writer.

I'm aware that there are ways for peer writing tutors to be useful and effective, but in the end a teacher/professor who wants his/her writing-challenged students to become good writers is signing up for a huge investment of editing/critiquing/discussing time for each and every student. This is exactly the opposite of the push towards "Efficiency" in higher education that Dave wrote about in his post of Dec 28, 2009 (http://serc.carleton.edu/earthandmind/posts/efficiency.html).


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This post was edited by Christof Zweifel on Jul, 2018
A timely post (February 9) at Rick Reis' "Tomorrow's Professor" listserv is on "Right Your Writing: How to Sharpen Your Writing and Make Your Manuscripts More Engaging". These alerts come via an eMail Newsletter, and you should all join this service for semi-weekly gems and insights about scholarship of many flavors. I do encourage everyone to check out this article, and the ~1000 similar useful and interesting posts at Tomorrow's Professor: go to the Tomorrow's Professor Blog: https://tomprof.stanford.edu/ and look up entry 997 to see this article. # 998 is also on writing: Writing a Statement of Teaching Philosphy for the Academic Job Search.

Resources listed at the end of Right Your Writing are:

G. D. Gopen, J. A. Swan, “The Science of Scientific Writing,” American Scientist , 78: 550-58, 1990 (from which several of the above writing examples were taken).

M. Cargill, P. O’Connor, Writing Scientific Research Articles: Strategy and Steps , New York: Wiley, John & Sons, Inc., 2009.

For tips on developing more productive writing habits see: Tara Gray, Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar , CITY: New Mexico State University Teaching Academy, 2005.


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This post was edited by Kit Pavlekovsky on Jul, 2012
I just stumbled across a blog and then a website about writing skills and strategies for visual thinkers. Since many geoscientists might fall in this category, these ideas could be helpful:

"Writing for Visual Thinkers" at http://eideneurolearningblog.blogspot.com/2009/12/writing-for-visual-thinkers... from the "Eide Learning Blog," a blog written by a pair of physicians.

"The Writing Problems of Visual Thinkers," by Gerald Grow, at www.longleaf.net/ggrow/WriteVisual/WriteVisual.html. The author is a professor of journalism and communication. He avows that his site "is not a blog. It is a collection of my best work."


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