Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Is My Writing Good Enough?

I've tried to decide what to write about for hours now. I've looked at every possible news story. I've read through articles from the most recent Council Chronicle. I've checked out my favorite blogs. I've searched the notes in all my journals.

I hate this kind of writer's block. I have pages of ideas, but I can't come up with something that seems important enough for NCTE's National Gallery of Writing. Nothing really feels right. Nothing feels good enough.

I know people suffer from writer's block every day. It's just that I'm an English teacher. I'm not supposed to have this problem. I know all about the writing process. I know that writing is hard work. I've tried brainstorming, rewriting and deleting—but I can't get unstuck. My writing just doesn't seem good enough.

Some little part of me expects a wonderful topic to spring forth. There must be a perfect idea out there somewhere, and I’ve searched and brainstormed for hours to find it.

Just as I was ready to give up, I remembered Gardiner Davis’s “Use the period. And other writing lessons,” a recent column from Crosscut, a Seattle news site. Davis explains that our quest for perfection is really the result of technology, more than anything else.

Now don’t jump to conclusions. It’s not that computers cause these problems. Davis points to technologies from the earliest days of writing. In the days of cuneiform, when writing required careful carving on clay tablets, there were grave consequences for error. There was no chance for correction. Only the option to start over. Davis describes the ultimate effect:

So fear enters the process. And as the element of fear gets linked with writing we create writer's block. That’s when the obsession with correctness comes in.

Davis goes on to discuss how this obsession with correctness resulted in essays covered in red ink and students and adults who hate writing.

Admittedly, I do not hate writing. I do hate being stuck. But why am I stuck? Davis’s article concludes that purpose and audience are really the key to the best writing. He says some negative things about the essays we English teachers assign, but his final point is well-taken:

When your boss asks you to write a letter, memo, or report, your first question should be, “What is the purpose of this document?” The second, “What do we want to happen because we sent this message?” And the last should be, “How much do we know about the reader?”

Without first clearly answering those questions, putting ink on paper is a total waste of everyone’s time.

Isn’t it absurd when a writing teacher forgets these things? I’ve been so busy worrying about finding the perfect topic that I forgot the most basic things about writing:

  • Forget about correctness. You can revise later.
  • Focus on what readers want (or need) to hear or know.
  • Decide what readers should do or think after reading.
  • Just start writing.

So if you’re like me and still haven’t figured out what to post in the National Gallery of Writing, it’s time. Stop looking for the perfect document. Stop trying to decide the perfect topic to ask students to write about for their submissions.

Think about what you want people who visit a gallery to see—perhaps details on how technology has affected your life, resources that show how you teach students, or even how you work as a writer. Decide what you want people who visit the gallery to conclude about how writing happens today for you and the students you teach.

And above all, don't worry about perfection. Just start writing.


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