10 Myths about Writing–part 2

Myth 6:  Writing is not important for math and science people.

I frequently have students in my class who say, “I’m going to be a ________________ (fill in the blank with any math, science or technical field), so I’ll never have to write.” It’s true that there are many entry-level positions in these fields that don’t require much writing.  However, it’s also true that for most of these areas, promotions depend on being able to communicate ideas to others, often in writing.  In fact, according to the National Commission on Writing, 66% of salaried employees must write as some part of their careers.

Myth 7:  You should write like you speak.

I once conducted a classroom ethnography during which I recorded and transcribed all class discussions over the course of a semester.  While I was in the class, I was amazed at how articulate and clear the students were.  When I got home to transcribe my tapes, I was shocked.

The discussion that seemed so clear suddenly became disjointed.  Students and professor paused and ummmmed throughout their speech.  They left gaps in ideas, started one point, dropped it in the middle and started on entirely unrelated topics.  They backtracked, skipped and misused words and said, “you know” all the time—even when nobody could possibly know.

The discussion sounded great to me because I was a listener, not a reader. When we speak and others listen, there are nonverbal cues, people ask questions and clarify—and, most importantly, there’s no permanent record. Advocates of writing as you speak do not take into account the significant differences between the speaking situation and the writing situation, where we have to fill in the gaps, predict what a reader will need without nonverbal cues, and create a logical flow of ideas because there are no listeners to assist with the development of ideas.

Sometimes it is a good idea to jot down ideas as though speaking to someone, but if the writer stops there, the text can be jumbled and incomprehensible—which is where good revising comes in (see #8).

Myth 8:  Once the words are on the page, the work is done.

Many students and novice writers sit down to write, type the words on the screen and then print out their papers, thinking they are done.  Getting some words on the page is not the only goal of writing, though.  Writing is a process, and for most experienced writers, writing a draft is far from the last stage in the process.

The draft is like the clay of writing.  The real work in writing is in taking the clay and molding it into an expressive sculpture, a written piece that accomplishes the writer’s purpose and provides the reader with an experience.  For this reasons, most writers spend a good proportion of their writing time revising.  One of my college professors told my class that Ernest Hemingway revised A Sun Also Rises over 46 times until he got it the way he wanted it.  Is that true?  I think it probably was.

Revising doesn’t mean going though the paper to correct any grammar errors (that’s editing, and it’s important, but best saved to last).  Revising requires looking at a paper with critical eyes and reworking it to achieve a writing goal—it means adding explanation and detail, taking out passages that don’t work, moving things around to create a flow to the work, and rethinking ideas.

Myth 9:  Writing reflects personal worth.

Many of my students come to class afraid to write because they feel that if they do poorly, it exposes their ignorance and weaknesses. Comments on their papers feel like personal attacks.  When they write about their own lives, those comments feel like a rejection of their experiences.

I remember my college roommate asked me to read one of her papers and give her feedback.  Even though the feedback I gave was benign, when I handed it to her, she started crying.  What she really wanted was for me to read her paper and tell her it was perfect as it was—which would have been a personal validation.

As a person whose profession is to give feedback and as a writer in a writers’ group who gets feedback, I understand how personal it feels.  The truth, is though, that a poorly written piece, or one that gets unfavorable feedback, is no more a reflection on the writer’s worth than a bad hair day is a reflection of a head’s value.  It’s just a starting point, with lots of room for improvement.

Myth 10:  Writing is only a skill needed to achieve the end goal of a career.

There seems to be a trickle up effect for writing.  We’re supposed to practice writing in middle school to prepare us to write in high school.  We write in high school to prepare us for college, and we write in college to prepare for a career.

But writing is much more than a practical means to an end.  Writers can enjoy the creative process of writing without having their career as a goal.  Writing can be personal expression, creative outlet and means of communicating with others.  Writing can be esthetic pleasure, simply for the sake of the beauty of the words on the page.

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