This year, I've spent a lot of time working with graduate students on their writing. They were preparing manuscripts for peer-reviewed publication, and wanted to lead the writing process from first cut to submission. The result, in addition to a stack of drafts, has been an unexpected and welcome education for me — a raft of challenges in learning to write, in teaching writing and in the craft of writing.
Writing is hard work, even for people who enjoy it. In my most impatient moments, I think of what William Shawn, legendary editor of The New Yorker magazine, once said to writer John McPhee: “It takes as long as it takes.”
But for anyone undecided about whether they like to write, 'as long as it takes' can be a tough sell. Engaging with the writing process requires unequivocal patience — with oneself, with iteration, with the open-endedness of simultaneously creating and solving a puzzle. Such dependence on patience makes writing tricky to learn and tricky to teach. Every adviser has a different way of guiding student writing. For each student, an adviser's default approach — usually some mix of trial, error, preference and habit — will either resonate or rankle. New graduate students arrive with formidable talents, but if they need to learn how to write, how do they start? What shape does that learning experience actually take?
Adapted from Getty
Between starting secondary school and finishing college, I participated in at least eight writing programmes and workshops. Some were three-week intensives; others ran for three months. The first focused on personal essays. Several covered technical exposition. Two were for poetry. Cumulatively, they delivered essential lessons.
One is that even technical writing is a creative practice, which means that commenting on someone's technical material can evoke an emotional response. Another is that unpractised attempts are clumsy, and a clumsy critique of an unpractised attempt can feel excoriating. A third lesson is that most students — and advisers — with scientific training rarely encounter the formal rules of constructive criticism that are so embedded in artistic training. Art students quickly learn that their work is an object, and as such, can be treated objectively by themselves and others. Once they understand objectivity, they also understand that critical comments on their work are not personal criticisms. In terms of emotional effort, an objective perspective is less exhausting — but both the writer and the critic need to be on the same page.
There was a stretch when I was regularly pushing student co-authors to the point of frustration. I hacked around with an overly heavy editorial hand. Projecting myself back into the setting of a writers' workshop has helped me to readjust. I now reply to every draft with the same question: “What kind of comments would you like from me?” I regularly remind myself that if the structure needs work, I should not also make copy edits. A retired high-school English teacher once told me that he marked student papers with the thickest crayon he could find. “There's a limit to how detailed your comments can be when you're using a dull crayon,” he said, “and that's for the best.”
Everyone can benefit from a good writers' workshop. If a workshop can help students learn how to be objective readers of their own work, then a workshop can likewise help advisers to be better guides through the warrens of the writing process. Time in a writers' workshop is an investment in professional development, in fruitful collaboration, in the practice and improvement of a craft. I'll be encouraging any graduate students I work with to enrol in one — and I might check out a few myself.