On the first day of school, after the usual introductions and syllabus review, I ask my students to pull out a sheet of paper and answer a few questions:
Do you enjoy writing? If so, what kind? What do you like about that kind of writing? If not, why not?
Do you consider yourself a good writer? Why or why not?
What is something you'd like to work on in your writing this semester?
What kinds of writing do you think you'll need in the future (in college, in your career, or otherwise)?
In addition to helping me get to know the students better, it's a good way to discover how they feel about writing and what they would like to get out of my course. After all, Comp 101 is a required general education course, meaning many of my students would rather be anywhere else. (A surprising number, in fact, don't think they'll need writing at all beyond college.) If I can find a way in—if I can find a way to address their perceptions about writing—maybe, just maybe, I can increase their investment in their learning (and, subsequently, in my class).
Because let's face it, writing is HARD. It is not a natural act, and even published authors say it takes a lot of discipline. In a passage I have my students read from Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King says:
"You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page."
This is not what my students want to hear. They have this assumption—perhaps we all do—that if someone does something for a living, then surely it must come easily to them. And if it comes easily to them, then surely they must know how to make it easy for others.
Unfortunately, as King points out in his book, the only thing that can make writing easier is—dun-dun-duuun—spending time reading and writing: reading because it teaches you how to write; writing because you can only get better at something by doing it. King reads around 70 or 80 books a year. He writes a minimum of 2,000 words every day, even on Christmas.
On the other hand, it can also be encouraging to learn that writers find writing hard. After all, if even they struggle . . . It isn't just you! In response to my questions, in fact, my students usually share similar answers:
The interesting thing about their thoughts is that they ring true for most people. Of course we find writing more fun when it's about something we care about. Of course we procrastinate when we don't know what we want to say.
They also share many of the same misconceptions. "I feel like I never sound sophisticated enough." "I enjoy verbalizing my arguments rather than writing them." Ha! They're always surprised when, later in the semester, we read William Zinsser (On Writing Well), who says:
"The secret to good writing is to strip every good sentence to its cleanest components."
Or William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White (The Elements of Style):
"Omit needless words . . . Write in a way that comes naturally."
The truth is that writing is a balance between knowing what you want to say (I often have my students verbalize their thoughts before they start writing) and writing to find out what you want to say. (In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says, "Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can't—and, in fact, you're not supposed to—know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.") And once you've figured out what you want to say, you should say it as naturally and concisely as possible. (In every post I write, I examine the words I type. Is each one doing new work?)
Writing is a lot of work. But done well and with passion, I tell my students, it can move mountains . . . Or at least get them a good grade. ;)