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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Writing Is Hard

Vacation setbacks.

September 6, 2018

I took some time off from writing last week, and when it came time to get back to it this week, I was suddenly convinced I’d never write again.

The jury is still out as to whether or not I’m wrong about that. I’m fewer than 50 words into this post.

As I’ve flailed my way through my attempts at expression over the last few days, I’ve been asking myself a question: Why is this suddenly so hard?

Writing is one of those things almost universally described as “hard,” and in my experience it is often hard in the sense that it is difficult, something which takes effort and care to do well. 

The difficulty of writing, the ways it is hard, are what I find most compelling about the work. It’s the same with teaching, the likelihood of something throwing those best laid plans awry and the inevitability of falling short, combined with the chance to try again fits perfectly with whatever my brain finds pleasurable.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always fun, and certainly not struggle-free. Having spent so much time among writers, it’s clear my natural gifts are relatively meager. One of the additional pleasures of having written for so long is recognizing how inconsequential those gifts are to doing the work.

My strength as a writer is my diligence, my willingness – more like eagerness – to show up at the worksite every day and see what might come out. Three days off and now I got nothing.

Part of the problem is that it was the wrong length of break, long enough to sever my connection to what I’ve been working on, but too short to truly replenish the spirit. The result is an interruption in the flow of ideas that only a few short days ago seemed to be inexhaustible without that itch because I've been away too long.

Anyway, what this experience has me considering is how the structure of school and the semester works against students developing their writing.

I may have mentioned this a time or two before, but writing is thinking. In order to do the kind of writing I believe to be most valuable in a student’s development, students must be induced to think hard. Like, really hard, like smoke-coming-out-of-their-ears, banging-their-heads-against-the-desk hard.

This kind of thinking takes time, and at least for me, an exclusive attention whatever it is I’m thinking about. This is why when I'm on vacation, and I’m supposed to be enjoying the company of the family I haven’t seen for months, I have to not be writing.

Both the necessary time and the exclusive attention to write well are hard to come by for most students, and by hard, I mean impossible.

Many of us have lamented the predictable pattern of students waiting until the last minute to produce a draft, and then waiting again to the last minute to do any revisions on that draft.

Who am I kidding, many of us have been that student, even after we were no longer students. It’s not incidental that most academics push substantive writing projects to breaks when they can give the necessary attention to the task.

I believe procrastination is often rooted in fear, but this kind of procrastination is also strategic, a recognition that writing will require some period of sustained concentration, and there’s no point digging in until that period of time becomes available.

Given the relentless triage students must do as they weight the demands of their studies and their lives, it shouldn’t surprise that the only available time for writing is at the last minute.

Those same time demands mean that most students will drop the project entirely between drafting and revision, at least until another last minute arrives. Every time the connection is broken, it takes some undefined, but often significant period of time to re-engage with the idea. My three day break and struggle to return to numerous projects already in progress is driving this home.

I do not experience this very often because I write pretty much every day. Some days that writing may only be an hour or two, but even this is enough to keep the fires stoked, to not lose that connection with the idea. Often, this limited engagement allows for just the right amount of thinking when I’m not actively writing, that half-purposeful musing that allows for unexpected ideas and connections to emerge.

Unfortunately, the time for the kind of sustained, immersive, and recursive thinking writing demands is largely not available to students. It’s unsurprising, then, when their work evidences this fact.

So, how does one help students navigate these tensions in a way that may help them become better writers?

One strategize is to practice what I recommended a couple weeks ago, “let ‘em write.” Design more experiences which can be executed in a tight time window on a deadline and make the assessment criteria appropriate to the experience.

Another technique I’ve had some luck with is breaking the semester rhythms, and using the miracle of digital interfaces to require writing to be due on days when class does not meet. This can even include partially completed assignments, such as asking students to produce a set number of words a day.

A balance must be struck, however. As much as it would be nice for my specific course to absorb a daily share of the student’s bandwidth, it’s not really fair to demand it.

Look at that. I’ve got a blog post of appropriate length and perhaps even some relevant insight. I do not feel as though I’ve shaken every last bit of rust free, but I’m better off than when I started on this piece this (Thursday) morning.

It won’t go in the Just Visiting Hall of Fame, but it’s enough to feel like I can take another swing tomorrow, and the next day, and the next…

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