For better or worse, the reading and writing habits we adopt in our teens and early twenties become set in stone over time and can be hard to break. Ironically, being rewarded with good grades in high school can become an encumbrance to good writing later. Because what most of us learned to write in high school were single draft term papers—usually written the night before we handed them in to the teacher.
I’m guessing some of you are already skillful at making sensible outlines and turning out short—semi-polished—papers practically in your head in no time at all. High school and college writing tend to reward quick and capable arrangements of brisk, passable papers. However, such basic, sophomoric follow-the-template procedures are the exact reverse of the skills associated with disciplined research, analysis, speculative/creative rethinking, and careful rewriting—like chiseling a block of granite down to a clear representation others can recognize, learn from, and fully appreciate.
On “Going Pro”
In most professions we eventually learn to write longer, more thoughtful, engaging and persuasive compositions. The ability to do thorough research and present complex data in support of our recommendations becomes an essential skill set in any profession you care to mention. Considerable writing proficiency is certainly needed for high degrees of leadership rhetoric and more effective management in rapidly changing, social-economic environments and institutions.
Few people can, or choose, to get it right on the first, second, or 22nd draft—paring things down to the bone. (Though some students mistakenly think that’s what good writers do on a regular basis. It isn’t.) In such a fluctuating, complex cosmopolitan centres as ours, just leaving things to the last minute might occasionally produce some interesting, workable ideas. (Even, for some on occasion, more than superficial soundness by chance.)
But such methods are unlikely to result in convincing more expert constituents or notable critics on closer examination.
For example, when students are encouraged to do more sharing in groups, it’s unlikely the kind of smarts you employed to produce one-shot, last-minute term papers at Claremountain High will get you very far at nailing down a high-calibre 10 to 15-page essay good enough to impress a learned professor in less than two weeks, let alone 48 hours. It takes a great deal of learning, focus, and patience to research, analyse, and compose such a beast. Let alone the poise and confidence to present it.
Writing is More Difficult for Writers Then It is for Most Other People
The best writers—like the best artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, and actors— continuously examine and work on each other’s stuff. Perhaps to confirm the direction you’re taking and/or suggest beauty and sometimes bizarre changes. Some will make helpful comparisons with other work on similar interests and problems. Likewise, a few readers will have better editorial judgment than others, so you need an orbit of people who can respond to the particular stage your work is at in real time at the moment. The lack of challenging, provocative feedback is death to the serious writer.
There’s also the terrible problem having very bright undergraduates writing about subjects and problems they’re barely interested in. Post-graduate authors get to write about subjects they know a great deal about and for which they specially care about the outcomes. They know their career futures may rest on how well their professors, colleagues, clients and others respond to their written work. Amateurs can afford to distance themselves from their writing; determined scholars and other creative professionals cannot.
Just remember, you can be a child prodigy in music, math, and all sorts of other arts and occupations—but when it comes to composition—you have to have done some dangerous living first, before you can learn to play tertiary writing games well. You need to have earned a few scrapes, sprains, cuts and bruises—before you pull the thorn out of your flesh, taper the end into a stylus with your razor’s edge. After that, as with other protocols with the devil and expressions of art, you only get better at getting better with plenty of unrelenting practice.
You take your hand from under your chin, pick up your pen and dip the end of the stylus in the ink well topped to the brim with your blood. And keep scribbling ‘til the well runs dry amigo.
Peter Chiaramonté, PhD
P.S. When Marco Adria and I pressed Leonard Cohen during an interview, he said he wouldn’t dare give advice to a young writer. Other than to embrace the two essential qualities of: youth and inexperience.