Confessions of a Struggling [PhD Student] Writer

I’ve come to the conclusion that we (go ahead and formulate that ambiguous pronoun to suit your own ends) don’t talk about the process of writing as much as we ought to. Of course, this isn’t news to writing teachers and professors or those who conduct extensive research on writing. I have fairly frequent conversations with people who doubt their writing abilities and hold others’ writing abilities in high esteem, as though a well-written essay is something of a genetic gift, much like being beautiful or having a photographic memory. So I thought maybe this would be a good thing to talk about (and I really do welcome conversation on this particular topic, since I spend a good deal of my time writing, thinking about writing, or reading the products of many hours of writing labor.

Nobody expects to be brilliant at the violin, or racquetball, or painting, or cooking without any practice. So why do we expect ourselves to be great writers without decades of practice?


Exhibit A: I wonder how many hours worth of writing went into these?

One of my favorite quotes about writing is from Hemingway, who despite his many flaws, was admittedly a hell of a writer. It goes something like this: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” I think he may have also compared writing to bleeding into a typewriter – thank goodness we don’t have to use those behemoths anymore. My wrists hurt just thinking about it. And while there may be some truth in those analogies, they are both irritating because they make writing seem effortless. For me, it is anything BUT effortless. So here are some things – confessions, lessons, what-have-you – that I have figured out about writing for myself.

  1. There are some things that I am really terrible at writing. And by this, I mean that there are some genres or formal conventions of writing that I struggle with mightily, to the point where I avoid them if I can. For example, the academic literature review makes me want to stick myself in the eye with a pencil. It’s like slogging through thick mud for miles on end, and when it’s over there isn’t even a shower to wash the mud off.
  2. There are some things that I am less terrible at writing. Such as academic theoretical pieces on some arcane topic. I get nerdily excited at the chance to speculate wildly, erm, I mean theorize seriously, about stuff like radical heteroglossia or rhetorical subjectivity or mediated representations of domestic violence. Everyone (I hope) has things that they are naturally drawn towards. And usually when I’m drawn towards something, I am better at it than I would be if I were forced to do it (see #1).
  3. There are plenty of “rules” of writing that I am bad at remembering. Commas are one of these; apostrophes are another. I have to look up the rules for plural possessive its’/its all the damn time. (Fortunately, hilarious writers like The Oatmeal have given me illustrated comics by which to remember this stuff. Or at least give me a laugh while I’m looking up the difference. Why are the shortest words in the English language the most troublesome?) Luckily, humans have produced the internet and many websites on grammar to save our asses when these things come up.
  4. The difference between a shitty piece of writing and a good piece of writing is time and drafts and editing and revising and proofreading and maybe some more coffee, please. In no particular order.
  5. Spell check < proofreading. Point in case. At the end of #3, I had originally written “to save our assess” instead of “to save our asses” and spell check was supremely unhelpful. Of course, being able to proofread depends on setting aside time for it…which leads me to…
  6. Although last-minute “panic inspiration” the night before a deadline is helpful as far as adrenaline goes, it’s not really a sustainable writing practice. You know what is a sustainable writing practice for me? Writing. Even if it’s dreadful and terrible, the act of pounding out words on a keyboard is something that somehow (magically, I suspect) leads to decent work. And then of course, there’s all the stuff in #4.
  7. Sentence structure is still a bitch. Something that makes perfect sense in my head sounds grotesque when read aloud. I frequently find myself going back and revising tortured sentences. There’s some perverse part of my brain that apparently really loves multiple clauses in a sentence.

It only looks easy from the outside when nobody talks about their writing processes! During my time in grad school I’ve received the most beautiful gift of honest feedback from my fellow writing group members, and I’ve learned to be a better reviewer and commenter on other people’s work in progress. Just simply SEEING other people’s drafts was a revelation at first. When I learned that one of the people whose writing I really admire was once an outline/prose mix studded with “write about XYZ here” and “need something else” and “this is a terrible word choice” I was immensely comforted. Suddenly my works-in-progress, replete with phrases like “blah blah blah” and reminders to “CITE THIS!” didn’t seem so shoddy, so unintelligent, so unworthy.

I’ve also learned to do a word search for “blah blah blah” before submitting any drafts to professors.

Love, peace, and honesty in writing,

P.S. In an effort to be honest, I must also admit that as I write this, I’m procrastinating a research project proposal that is due in less than 24 hours. I am also terrible at taking my own advice. I’m going to rationalize this by saying that I’m following my advice from #6 instead…and now that I’m done pounding these words out on a keyboard I will go back to my other work. No, really. I totally will.

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  1. Erin Huebner Gloege

     /  September 24, 2014

    Sumiko, it took me a really long time to learn some of these things. In college, I was able to act like a person who was born a good writer though really all the work had been put in during high school. As I progressed to my Master’s, I became a frustrated writer who had a lot of trouble seeing the big picture and becoming a good re-writer, a person who wrote bad drafts to begin with (something I almost never needed to do in college). At the end of my MA, I was a confident, competent writer who believed she could take on any writing task. The rub comes in that when working at U of Utah for a PhD I didn’t get, I became an anxious, paralyzed, uncertain writer. I have a few theories of how I got there but no cure so far.

    These experiences have taught me a lot of what you are saying. Now that I’m teaching writing full time, I make sure to choose books and approach writing that says it is not only okay to write badly, but it is a good thing. We need to write more to discover. Not that we end there, but that we need to begin with inquiry. Also, my favorite book for first year composition makes students think about and question their beliefs about writing specifically the limiting belief that you either have it or don’t (born with it or not). I’ve found that if students really believe that they can become good writers, they try much harder and do much better. If only, I could figure out how to be my own writing teacher.

    I would really love to hear about the writing struggles of someone who has “made it.” Like a professor, scholar in our field. I think it would help grad students to know that even when you make it, writing is still hard. Should we even expect that some day it won’t be so hard? Maybe, we have this false sense that we’ll get there some day and writing will become easy. We need to know that we are not deficient because writing is hard. It is always hard. As I write this, I wonder about professors I admire. Do they find writing hard? What do they struggle with? Do they still procrastinate?

    Doesn’t it also seem as though if you study writing/composition and how to teach it, etc. shouldn’t that mean you can apply all that to yourself? Shouldn’t Rhet/Comp students be the best writers who don’t find writing so difficult as the rest of the world? Again, I think this is a false belief that is worth challenging.

    Ok. There are my thoughts. And look how much I wrote!! It’s not impossible…

  2. Erin, wow! So many good points. I think that human beings often have a hard time taking our own advice, which probably extends to writing/composition teachers as well. What is the favorite book that you mention, the one that makes students question their beliefs about writing? I’d love to read it too.
    Maybe I can get a professor to do a guest post about the writing process from their perspective!

    • Erin Huebner Gloege

       /  October 12, 2014

      Hi Sumiko.. I use The Curious Writer by Bruce Ballenger for my first year comp classes. The first two chapters are really good and the rest of the book looks at reading and writing as a process of inquiry. BTW, after I discovered and used this book, I found out that another graduate of Utah uses it as well.

  1. What I Wish I’d Known When I Started Grad School | smorgasbord

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