On Rituals, Old School Fundamentals, and Taking the Craft of Writing Seriously

Contributor: Raúl Alberto Mora, Ph.D. — LSLP Chair

As this month’s blog is about writing, let’s begin with the [painfully] obvious: Writing is never easy. Romanticizing it is moot (sorry, but any folks dreaming of engaging in writing à la Colin Firth’s character in Love Actually will be in for a very rude awakening), accepting the learning curve and the woes of the multiple genres (hello, APA Manual!) is a necessary first step to improve one’s writing style.

Learning to write also means accepting the imperfect nature of a draft, for example. Anne Lamott described it beautifully in her famous essay, Shitty First Drafts. However, accepting the ugliness of a first draft takes time. If writing, as poet Nichole McKnight put is, is “the window of the soul,” then we also have to accept that some first drafts may leave you feeling like Arnold Schwarzenegger when he finally meets the Predator in his epic action masterpiece, Predator, and you may in turn describe your draft as…

(Quick tangent: the only people who’ve never written an ugly draft in their careers are those who don’t write at all, so don’t fret.)

And believe me, even seasoned academic writers would tell you, embracing the fact that the first draft needs to be out the door is the key. Not losing that fear is the difference between those who write and publish and those who never do. It also means being open to listen to others talk about your work, especially your peers, a tall order for students. As a graduate student, I faced those fears too, but I still remember what my mentor Renée Clift always told us, “it all begins with a bad draft”. Embrace the badness, accept the ugliness, and use that as proverbial clay to really create your masterpiece. If you’re writing in a second language (as is my students’ case and mine as well), don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You will make them, but daring to write in another language has a lot of upside, so don’t despair.

There is another consideration when it comes to learning to write: how and when to start typing. The debate is ongoing about the value and place for handwriting in the composition process. As a mentor, I have a very old school approach to this. It can easily be summarized in the first thing I tell my graduate students when we have our first advisory meeting:

I want you to go to an office supplies store, a nice one, and buy yourself a really fancy notebook (I myself recommend Moleskine, but it’s just me) and then I want you to buy yourself a really fancy pen and pencil set (I myself recommend Lamy, but they’re a tad pricey, so I always tell them to choose something fancy).

The reason I do this is not to be picky or to place undue pressures on my students. The reason is a matter of principle and pride: If you’re going to get serious about the business and craft of writing, then, by golly, find yourself the best tools available! Or, do you think Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel with cheap brushes? Or, to make it more mundane, I’m sure professional house painters don’t choose the kinds of brushes that leave bristles on the walls! They choose quality brushes! Ditto carpenters, sculptors, etc. If writing is difficult enough already, why turn it into drudgery? Choosing the right tools might encourage you (and my students who have already completed their theses can attest to this).

It has been my experience that always resorting to the notebook before moving to the laptop makes that first draft flow better. I believe firmly in that old school approach. It helps to detach yourself from the laptop and take some time to collects your thoughts together. Play with your thoughts in a notebook (suggestion: If you’re working on a really big project, say a thesis or dissertation, then have one notebook only for that piece of writing), but be strategic and organized. Also, this sounds silly, but if you’re going to hand write, make sure you can read your thoughts afterwards! Only after you’ve played with those notes for a considerable time frame, go to the laptop. You see, that blank page on Word or Google Docs is very tempting. That blank page dares you to write right off the bat! And, if you take the bait (and we all have at some point), writer’s block is more likely to happen.

Sure, I don’t do that when I do “gonzo writing” as is the case of a blog post, but I always take time to compose in my head (as the late Steven Stahl once suggested I did in the middle of a writer’s block in 2004). In fact, I strongly recommend to follow Dr. Stahl’s advice (that was the only lesson he taught me when we crossed paths at the University of Illinois and it has been a very useful one in my career as academic writer) and compose in your head while taking a walk and then make sure to put those musings in your notebook.

There’s another important consideration for those beginning writers: I’ll let former NBA star Allen Iverson tell you the gist:

Yes, Mr. Iverson, we are talking about PRACTICE! The practice of writing on a regular basis is important. Start small and progress on your writing (our best example is our LSLP Micro-Papers, for example, as a way to develop a sense of progression that helps all our researchers), but write often and write everywhere! If you enjoy writing, so much the better! If you’re not so keen on it, developing this sense of practice is paramount. That helps you be prepare to write bigger and better pieces (even those great scholars you read in the prime time journals started small and write often in multiple academic and non-academic outlets!). And, here’s the kicker: The more you get into writing, the more opportunities to write will show up to your doorstep as your career progresses!

Finally, when you put your writing out there and it gets the desired outcome (i.e. get posted or published) enjoy it! Academia sometimes only tends to celebrate the big-time writing and overlooks the small-scale writing. Don’t fall prey to that trap. Enjoy every piece that gets published (our students, for example, take great pride in making their Micro-Paper their first publication ever) and tell the world about it! Don’t be shy! If you get a paper accepted in a small journal, tell the world. You worked hard for it, only you know how long it took you to put it together (and I’m sure it wasn’t easy, especially at first)! And after you celebrate, use the elation as fuel to your writing fire and go back to your notebook and start plotting your next creation.

I bid farewell until our next blog at the LSLP Legion Post. Keep thinking, keep writing, keep dreaming!

And to “the most electric research team on our campus” I say…

Legio Invicta! Legio Æterna!