Demystify Writing Misconceptions

Learn the beliefs that empower successful academic authors.

To become a competent, confident writer, you may find it useful to analyze your attitudes about writing. After all, your assumptions about how writers work can limit your imagination and the quality of your finished product. You can debunk a truckload of myths about writing by analyzing how you write, how your peers write, and how professional writers write.

Writers are Born Rather Than Nurtured

Reality: Perhaps a few people are born with a special ability to express themselves through language, yet ability without desire or experience nets an empty page

Researchers have been unable to prove that writers are uniquely intelligent or original. What is unique, however, is that writers discipline themselves to write and revise. When their thoughts are muddy, successful writers persist until they achieve clarity.

Writers Always Enjoy Writing

Reality: Professionals agonize about their writing from time to time.

For example, Sue Lorch, an accomplished writing teacher and author, writes: I do not like to write. Most people to whom I reveal this small, personal truth find it exceedingly odd, suggesting by their expressions that I ought either to repair my attitude or develop the discretion necessary not to go around telling people about it. Apparently these people hear my confession as an admission of fraud. Because my professional life centers on the written word—on producing it, interpreting it, teaching it, and teaching others to teach it—people assume that I should enjoy writing. Not at all. I inevitably view the prospect of writing with a mental set more commonly reserved for root canals and amputations: If it must be done, it must be done, but for God’s sake, let us put it off as long as possible. [Sue Lorch, “Confessions of a Former Sailor.” In Writers on Writing. Ed. Tom Waldrep, New York: Random House, 1985. 165-172.]

Although experienced writers may dislike the act of writing, they know that if they are to develop ideas, they need to put their pen to the page or their fingers to the keyboard. Like the forty-niners prospecting for gold in the Sierras, many of us write with the hope of eventually experiencing the “Eureka Phenomenon”—the inspirational moment when our passion finds form and we discover what we want to say by writing.

Gifted Writers Are Overflowing with Ideas

Reality: Experienced writers do not have a monopoly on good ideas.

Like most other people, they suffer through long, weary days when good ideas seem as rare as a lunar eclipse. Even on the worst days, however, they have faith in the creative process; their experience tells them that the chaos and frustration of early drafting will subside once a few drafts are written. Also, they look outside of themselves for ideas by reading extensively, observing their world, and building relationships with people.

Writing is a Lonely Craft Conducted Best By Introverts

Reality: Contrary to the myth of the lonely writer in the garret, you do not need to chain yourself to a desk in order to create.

Writing need not be a solitary, lonely act. In fact, writers who do not enjoy working in isolation either coauthor essays or they make arrangements with friends to meet together and write on their separate subjects. Others find it useful to write in noisy college cafeterias. And even if you do your best writing in a quiet room away from other people, you can probably do your best revising by observing how your words influence actual readers. When you can no longer find fault with your manuscript, there’s nothing more invigorating than sharing it with trusted peers.

In business settings, people often coauthor corporate reports and interoffice memos. Even the stereotypical author in the garret is responding line by line to how his or her words are likely to be received by the intended reader. Most writers routinely seek advice from colleagues and editors.

Writers Work Best at Their Desks

Reality: Thoughts about what you are going to write about do not only occur when you are sitting at your desk. If you are receptive to sudden insights, you will find that some of your best ideas originate when you are puttering about in the world, playing golf or driving in busy traffic. Studies of the creative processes of scientists and artists suggest that our most innovative breakthroughs occur in the slack moments between work and play, so keep a notepad or tape recorder handy to record promising thoughts.

Writers Are Most Critical When They are Planning and Drafting

Reality: When they are just beginning a writing project, experienced writers ignore doubts about the quality of their ideas.

They often set aside questions of how best to organize their ideas or whether their rough drafts contain grammatical and mechanical errors. Experienced writers understand that evaluating the originality of all ideas based on a first or second draft is impossible.

Truly Skilled Writers Rarely Revise

Or, quality writing always develops spontaneously; revision is a form of punishment inflicted by nit-picking teachers

Reality: Professional writers do not perceive revision as merely a process of correcting errors; instead, they value revision as a method for developing and discovering their ideas.

Once Written, the Word is Final

Reality: Sure, when you submit your finished essays to your teachers, you should believe in what you have said. Ideally, your essays represent your best thinking on your subject. However, you should feel free to change your mind when reviewing your work at a later date. In fact, your teachers want to help you recognize that thinking is an ongoing process. Rigid thinkers, like rigid writers, are characterized by bitterness and sarcasm rather than invigorated by the challenges of an ever-changing world.

It is Inappropriate to Use “I” in Writing

Reality: Use the first person when you are discussing personal experiences and when you want your readers to understand that the ideas in the text are your ideas or your opinions.

Because the “I” voice is so integrated with the insightful, energetic inner voice that helps us create, you might find it useful to write all your first drafts in the first person. Later on, if required by your communication situation, you can remove or rework the first person references.

The First Paragraph of Every Essay Should Define Your Thesis

Reality: Although it is true that many readers appreciate a writer’s work when he or she summarizes the purpose of the document, explains the significance of the topic, and foregrounds how the document is organized, this does not mean that you always need to follow this sort of deductive organization structure.

Rigid rules about structuring ideas need to be shattered when serious thinking is going on. No single structure or format can satisfy diverse audiences and purposes. When you are revising your work, you will want to respond to the conventions for structuring ideas that exist for your specific communication situation.

Instructors Care Primarily about Grammar, Punctuation, and Spelling

Reality: More than anything else, your instructors care that you have thought deeply about a subject and written about it in such a way that they can understand your thinking.

Your instructors are much more concerned with the quality and depth of your ideas than with spelling, grammatical, or punctuation errors. However, because stylistic errors can intrude on your reader’s understanding of your subject, be sure to correct any such errors

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