Thursday, August 6, 2009
Lessons from the Writing Lab
Greetings grammophiles! Today is my official last day as a graduate tutor in the Purdue Writing Lab. I am off to more literary pastures in the following school year (not "greener" just different). While all these experiences are still fresh in my mind, I wanted to pass along some of the lessons I've learned about writing and, maybe, life.
For the vast majority of writers, the Romantic notion of genius-inspired creativity just doesn't apply. There are very few people who can sit down and write a perfect essay, poem, or report the first time. Good writing takes time, and it is the persistent writers, the ones who consistently revisit their ideas, who generally succeed in communicating something interesting. Writing can be frustrating. I see it in my clients' faces on almost a daily basis. Luckily, I have never had anyone cry during a consultation. There have been plenty of sighs and groans.
That frustration may not be a negative thing. Take it as a sign that you need to slow down and think about the topic a little more. I also notice that our repeat clients, particularly the ones who have poured hours into a document, tend to exhibit less and less frustration as they move along. I am also struggling through a personal statement at the moment, and I came across Mary Hale Tolar's (Executive Secretary, Truman Scholarship Foundation) suggestions for writing a personal statement. She suggests engaging in activities that keep your body busy but your mind free to wander. Some of my favorites: take a walk, weed the garden, take a shower (you would be surprised how many ideas come up in the shower!).
Get a Second Reader (and a Third and a Fourth)
The idea sounds simple. It can be a little intimidating to ask someone else to read your stuff. Strangers generally work better as second readers than friends or relatives. Strangers are more likely to give you an honest assessment. Since strangers are unfamiliar with your work, you may find that having to explain your ideas to someone else can actually be quite fruitful. You may see your project in a new light, or you might suddenly utter that perfect sentence you have been stuck on for two weeks. Just make sure to have paper and pencil (or computer) handy if you are talking informally about your writing. A few nights ago, I was walking with my wife and said something that would have been fantastic to put in my personal statement. But by the time I got home, the magic had vanished. If this happens to you, see above.
Seek Out Strategies Rather Than Fixes
Anyone can "fix" your paper, but if you passively sit by and do not participate in the revision process, chances are you will make that mistake again. Allowing someone else to correct what you did wrong means that you haven't learned anything. You will always need to have that other person's approval to make sure it is "right." That is why it is better to seek out "strategies" for writing and revising rather than quick fixes. Strategies serve as a guidelines for choices. Yes, think of writing as a series of choices to be made. Strategies should help you decide between active and passive constructions, simple and complex sentences, or even something simple as the verb "abscond" over "sneak out." If you have trouble with articles, seek out some guidelines for using "the/a/an" in your writing. You may be surprised that as your writing gets better, so too will your speaking.
There Is Always an Audience
You can help your writing immensely by finding an audience, even if it means you have to imagine one. "You" can also be your own audience, which works great for diary entries but can only get you so far with other types of writing. Audiences, imagined or otherwise, will help give your paper a focus as well as an argumentation style. Do you want to persuade, inform, or entertain your audience? What type of information will they appreciate (and recognize) the most? Having an audience may also help you bring your document to a close. If you know there is someone out there waiting to read your writing, you are more likely to finish it at some point.
In closing, I just want to write a note of thanks to everyone in the Purdue Writing Lab. It has been a great place to work for the past two years, and I have learned more about writing and the process of writing than I ever would have otherwise. This, however, does not mean I'll be leaving the Grammar Gang. Good luck and keep typing away.