The author-god, according to mid-20th-century language theorist Roland Barthes, embodies the Romantic notion of the artist to whom brilliant epiphanies come to be written down. In fact, at times throughout history, the best authors were believed to have been chosen and directly inspired by God himself.
Because of this cultural paradigm, many of us are deeply psychologically invested in the idea of individual genius authorship, and it manifests negatively in students’ approaches to their classes and other rhetorical situations that require critical reading and writing skills. How often do instructors hear students say, “I’m just not a good writer”? The idea of the genius author perpetuates the bad idea that some people are just born good writers while others are not.
Many institutional reasons exist for holding on to an untroubled concept of genius authorship: degrees, jobs, grades, salary, promotions, tenure and awards often depend on it. And writing is hard work; we feel a sense of pride at what we have accomplished and having our name attached to it. However, Bruce Horner writes in “Students, Authorship, and the Work of Composition” that the genius idea is also “linked to the removal of writing from the social material world, redefining it from a socially located activity to an aestheticized, idealized art object -- from writing as an activity engaged in to writing as an object produced for the sake of ‘art.’” When struggling writers consider writing a piece of art, they become frustrated because they cannot force their writing to look like what they expect art to be, and they have no clue where to begin to make themselves the genius writer they believe teachers and readers expect.
While culturally and professionally we are all quite attached to the idea of individual author genius, it has been complicated by the technological shifts of the last several decades -- notably the personal computer, word processors, the internet and all its present manifestations -- which facilitate the conflation of author, reader and editor. Writing is more collaborative and socially situated than it has ever been.
More than 20 years ago in Electric Language, Michael Heim wrote that a new understanding of the relationship between language and knowledge has resulted from personal computers. Because computer-based composition is quicker than pen to paper and because the internet allows us to share what we have written so quickly, our composition happens quickly, often as a reaction to what someone else has written or posted. Heim also reminds his readers that one of the effects of word processing and subsequently web publishing is that authors are not just authors; they are also editors and publishers, broadening the individual's daily interaction with language. In other words, while the idea of the individual author genius is theoretically problematic, it is also practically problematic, because our everyday authorship practices are socially situated, collaborative and interactive.
Unfortunately, however, discussions of authorship with students tend to ignore those interesting aspects of language and focus on what they should not do: don’t plagiarize, don’t say “I,” don’t use Wikipedia as research. Such conversations are led by a misplaced fear that students will try to pass themselves off as “real” writers and criminalize their novice attempts at writing, which are messy by nature. Even the term “student writer” insinuates a power differential between capital “A” Author (who gets held up on a pedestal) and lowercase “s” student writer (who gets complained about or is assumed to be unable to write).
In this line of thinking, student writers cannot be “real” writers because what they produced is not finished, not art. They are often punished for being students. Sometimes when I hear colleagues complain about student writing, my response is “But isn’t that why we’re here? Is it not our job to teach them?”
But this power differential between student writers and Authors perpetuates the idea of students as children in order to keep ourselves in a position of authority and that we bring them “into publication (but not into authorship) for someone else's purposes -- for teachers' purposes,” says Amy Robillard, an essayist and professor of English at Illinois State University. To do this, we paint narratives of students negatively, we refer to them by first name only in our publications rather than last names as we would “real” authors (in other words, “Julie writes,” as compared to “Faulkner writes”), we construct students as passive rather than active, and we negatively compare students to professional writers. In doing this, as Robillard asks, “How can students not come up lacking?” -- particularly in their own minds.
To alleviate this disconnect between what culture believes writing is and what the activity of writing involves, many writing studies professionals agree that we should emphasize the contextual aspects that shape writing. We should emphasize writing as a “socially located activity” and reject it as “idealized art object.” They are not student authors, for example, but authors. Authors. With a voice and ideas and opinions about things they have read or have seen.
One potential way to do this is to take writing out of the sole context of the classroom. Traditional essays that are only seen by the professor (or perhaps the professor and a peer reviewer) do not build the students’ concepts of themselves as authors, because they can see those assignments as acontextual hoops to jump through. Assignments that broaden their audience or provide real contexts such as blog posts or service learning placements in the community can help them see themselves as real authors with real audiences and the act of writing as a “socially located activity.”
I will not deny, however, that certainly some authors are naturally more comfortable, experienced or confident than others, or that some may have more practiced facility with certain writing situations. Natural talent exists. Sometimes I compare writing to sports: I am not a naturally talented athlete, but I have trained for and run dozens of races, from 5-Ks to half marathons. I am a runner. A person may not be naturally strong, but how could they gain strength? Lift weights. Need more flexibility and balance? Practice yoga. Likewise it is with writing. We are all authors, and all authors can become better authors.
Indeed, research in writing studies shows that improved writing can be taught to writers at all levels. But we must first debunk the deeply held idea in the collective psyche that only some lucky people are good writers in order to increase openness to learning how to write better. If a person thinks their writing ability is stuck in place, improvement is incredibly difficult, further solidifying as a self-fulfilling prophecy a belief that they are a hopeless cause.
This idea that some people are good writers while others are just not can be truly crippling to a writer. Good writing instruction -- either in a classroom setting, a tutoring session or informally -- can only occur if a student believes that they can become a good writer with practice and focused feedback. And that can only happen if they have debunked the myth of the genius author.
To help them do that, I tell my writing students that writing is fun -- to which they groan and roll their eyes. I push harder. For me, writing is like playing a game or solving a puzzle, because I must figure out certain challenges. In the end, I get a feeling of satisfaction -- of fun, even -- because I have created something that did not exist before, that only my work could have accomplished in exactly that way. And I work with them to help them get that feeling of satisfaction and fun, as well. This is how we must challenge the idea that some people are just born good writers: by fostering the habits of mind that value the reward of working through challenges.
Simultaneously, however, we must acknowledge that writing is a social activity enhanced by reading, research, remixing, peer review and collaboration. We are able to exchange information and build on one another’s ideas at speeds never imagined only a few decades ago. While the idea of an individual author is problematic, instructors must also understand we are interacting with students who experience the world as individuals and who perceive of themselves as individuals. Our perception of authorship is intricately linked to experiences, through which they have often “learned” that some people are just born good writers. In fact, in my experience teaching, I have heard many students tell me they’re just not good writers because a previous teacher has told them that. Luckily, we can give them tools and experiences that help build their confidence and experience as we simultaneously help them reconceptualize what an author is. For example, if they perceive writing as a socially situated activity rather than as a product of a genius, students who once saw revisions or writing center consultations as punishment for “bad” writing might be more open to learning from those opportunities.
Key to improving novice writers’ experiences is improving how they think about their work, a process called metacognition. Opening up cognitive space that allows for metacognition and reflection is essential to experiential and practical improvement. One particularly powerful concept is persistence: persistence emphasizes that experience is more powerful than unchangeable ability and that challenges help move writers forward rather than delaying their progress.
David Shenk’s recent book The Genius in All of Us speaks to this. He persuasively argues that intelligence is not fixed or set in stone. Rather, people who are ultimately successful at learning are not discouraged by failure but use it as an opportunity to persist. They are motivated, at least in part, because they have come to appreciate the feeling of satisfaction they get once they have worked through a challenge.
Good writers build these habits of mind. A successful writing student -- whether someone working alone, as a professional or technical writer, with a community group, as a university student, or any other way -- is not necessarily one who writes more but one who persists and reflects on the work done as a means of improvement. Instructors exist not to reward the talented genius and punish the unlucky but to provide opportunities for writing, feedback, reflection, remixing and revision of that work as socially located activities with rhetorical awareness. When a previously “bad” writer sees improvement, sees the value of persistence and feels the satisfaction of the metacognitive recognition that they have gotten better, they will know that good writers are not born but come to fruition in the social act of writing itself.
Jeff Goins’s blog post “The Difference Between Good Writers and Bad Writers” aptly gets to the crux of my argument here for helping inexperienced or unconfident writers expand their experiences and confidence: it’s mostly practice. Further, much of the idea that a person is a bad writer comes from anxiety about being unable to produce that art-product text as some kind of genius, so some simple exercises that combat writing anxiety can help students break through to get the practice they need to open up that space for metacognition. The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina, for example, has an excellent webpage on practically approaching writing anxiety.
The takeaway for all writers is that we can improve, and we are not bound by an inborn, set level of writing talent. Good writers are not born. They are learned.