by Brian Smith
“I was fairly confident in my writing ability if given enough time before I took Academic Writing, but I knew that there were still areas for improvement in my writing and that it would often take me way, way too long to finish writing tasks.
I always had a hard time figuring out which order I should explain different parts of my story, given that there were many interdependencies between parts and that those interdependencies were often nonlinear. By “story” I mean micro- (paragraph) level and macro-level. I was also too focused on providing seamless transitions between each idea in my text, so a question I would always ask myself was, “If I put these ideas in this order, how will I transition between them?”
Adding to this complication was the fact that I usually did not have a complete list of all the ideas I wanted to cover in the text, and the thought that even with a comprehensive ordering of all the ideas I wanted to cover, I still needed to provide a “beginning transition” so that the first idea is presented smoothly. Furthermore, I was never sure how far back that beginning transition should stretch — how general it should be.
All of this caused me to run extended circles in my drafting process and end up with writing that felt smooth but forced and oddly lacking in purpose.
Only after suggestions from others would my writing become relatively polished — meaning that it would be in a state that I was relatively proud of and that I would actually get compliments for from readers and conference reviewers. Even in this state, though, there were many sections in my text I knew could be improved — there was just something about them that was not at peace with itself — but I could never articulate exactly what was wrong with them since they comprised grammatically correct sentences with all of the necessary content and appropriate transitions.
By taking the Academic Writing class, I have begun to see why I was having these problems and can better articulate why a piece of writing is not working as well as it possibly could. There were three lessons that resonated with me especially.
The first seems counter- intuitive: that writing should not be thought of as getting all of one’s ideas onto a page and arranging them so that they form a smooth and logical sequence. Rather, writing should be thought of as sculpting the story your reader should know by choosing what to include in the core sculpture (your piece of writing) and what to leave out from it.
Thinking about writing in this way makes it clear that a small kernel — one central idea or story — stands at the heart of your writing, and that every word and sentence you add outside of that kernel will actually occlude it and make it hard to recognize for the reader. It is not enough to find a smooth and grammatically correct way to fit everything you want to say in. The real challenge is to identify what the kernel is for each part of your writing and to conscientiously leave out everything that does not give that kernel its essential shape, thereby composing what is left. Adhering to this principle has kept me focused on what the reader should know and not all I want to say.
The second is that great writing should reveal itself to the reader immediately by bringing the reader to its small kernel as quickly as possible — in my experience so far, within the first sentence in almost every case. Just as great works of art present themselves to viewers at first glance, great writing should too. We would not start talking to a new acquaintance about a topic without first saying our name — who we are — and likewise a piece of writing should not start talking in-depth about a topic without first saying what it is.
Third, and most practically for me, is that there are actually separate cognitive processes in the brain for communicating ideas and for editing, and that the brain has a very hard time doing both at the same time. It explained why my practice of drafting new ideas while editing how they were conveyed did not work. Realizing this fact allowed me to shift the blame for my slow drafting from myself to my brain, and when I write now I focus on accommodating my brain by splitting up those two tasks.”