On the penultimate (What a great word. How often does one get to use that word?) blog for this semester I would like to reflect on the activity of writing from my perspective as a faculty blogger this semester. Before I do, keep in mind the following:
1) I have taught freshmen writing courses for ten years now, on average of four courses per year. There are things I teach my students in class about writing that I have repeated so many times I am beginning to put myself to sleep.
2) In my chosen profession I write more pages than the average citizen, along with a book-length dissertation I have written numerous essays, articles, journal entries, emails, and job letters. And, I am expected to maintain a certain level of writing activity. Even if our small, liberal arts university has not adopted the publish-or-die mindset of research institutions, I understand how important writing is to my professional development.
3) I have spent more than half my life in higher education, as a student (Don’t ask how long I took to complete my doctorate) and as an educator. There have been a lot of teachers and colleagues along the way that have passed on instruction and wisdom about how to be a good writer. I still hear Dr. Ann Hawkins’ voice ringing in my ears every time I put off my writing activity until the next day, “Write early; write often. Write early; write often. Write early; write often.” One of my least favorite professors whose words nag at me like a toothache.
The truth is, though, you cannot grow as a writer unless you force yourself to write on a regular basis, at least weekly, preferably daily. This is why I chose to take on the task of blogging this semester. I know that, in order to be good at anything it is essential to practice that thing. I regularly employ the analogy of writing to training for an athletic event to remind my students of the importance of practice in the pursuit of quality writing. More than anything, I hope to cultivate the discipline of writing in my own life, and I don’t mean just for my professional life.
So, here are a few things to consider about writing, not from a writing teacher, not from a professor, not from a lifelong student, but from a person who has spent the last 15 weeks writing this blog.
1. Never underestimate the importance of approaching writing as a process.
Early in our academic life, we develop some very bad habits, the worst being writing a paper the night before it is due. Even if the peak of our academic career is high school graduation, I will guess that we have all succumbed to this temptation, even though every writing teacher, always, will tell students to allow plenty of time for revision. I admit, a couple of my blog posts were written within 12 hours of submission. I also know that the best blog posts, those that reflect my best work were blog posts I worked on a little bit everyday over the course of the week. The process must include prewriting—planning, researching, organizing, etc.—drafting, and revising. Leaving one of these steps out can lead to a poor and ineffective writing product.
2. You must carefully consider what informs and inspires your writing.
First, the subject and content of what you write about is something that you should be thinking about constantly. When I am really invested in a blog post or a paper, I will think about it all the time, especially during down time, as I am lying in bed at night, driving in the car, or watching my kids play outside. I discover new approaches to organization, draft sentences, or anticipate my conclusion, among other things, in those moments when I am not actually sitting down at a computer participating in writing. Those are some of the most valuable moments for drafting a piece of writing.
Second, you must understand that there are ebbs and flows of writing production, based on a number of factors. Sometimes I find inspiration for writing in something I have been thinking about for months. Sometimes it is something that comes to me the week the blog is written. Sometimes inspiration does not come and I must write about something that is simply necessary to my own professional existence or personal thought process. Keep in mind, sometimes writing, even a blog post, is not about you. It is about the subject, the thing you are writing about. It is good to remain true to your own interests or passions, but sometimes things just need to be written about. For example, the Quran is not my primary field of expertise, but at this point in history, if my students are not exposed to a basic understanding of that text, then I am doing them a disservice. So, I teach it in class, I wrote about it, and I encouraged them to read it.
3. Writing is primarily an exercise in thinking.
This is the simple truth about writing and the reason why we teach all those dreaded writing classes that students must overcome in their academic journey. You will never learn about anything more than the things that you write about. When we sit and think about a subject enough to write about, it changes us. That’s also why writing is so challenging at times. It is hard work. It’s weightlifting for the brain. But, that is also why writing is so important, so valuable for a true education. I wish my students would understand and embrace that fact. For that matter, I wish our society would embrace that fact. We are slowly losing the oh-so-valuable assumption that writing is a skill that we should embrace and cultivate simply because we are humans.