WA Program Hosts Faculty Panel on Writing Process

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This past Wednesday, the Writing Associates hosted a faculty panel that discussed the intricacies, nuances, dynamics, and personal principles of each professor’s own writing and writing processes.

The talk featured Professors Ken Sharpe of Political Science, Amy Vollmer of Biology, and Nathalie Anderson of English Literature and covered a vast range of issues from negotiating feedback (providing or receiving) to first approaches to a prompt to dealing with the well-known symptoms of writing exhaustion. Each member of the panel described their own unique journeys through writing but often brought up recurring themes or offered much of the same advice, despite their vastly differing disciplines.

All three panel members, for example, encouraged students to give [keyword: disciplined] distractions some leeway. Professor Anderson said she often wrote in intervals to “continually cleanse [her] palate” while both Professors Sharpe and Vollmer let their writing “sit overnight” before revisiting and revising.

Sharpe advised the audience to “keep a pad and pen by the shower” as some of his most insightful ideas came from not actively thinking about the writing topic. “Quite often, the unconscious mind is working to help you solve problems or see things differently,” Sharpe claimed, “and there’s good psychological evidence for that…so when you wake up in the morning and stumble into the shower, BAM!, those 20 points that didn’t fit into place all fall into place.” Vollmer echoed the sentiment by stating that “allowing yourself to deal with distractions in a disciplined way can also help to consolidate, integrate, and synthesize information.”

This sort of subconscious meditation is only possible when there is time to actually do so, something most procrastinators don’t have at 2AM in McCabe. To that effect, all three professors unsurprisingly admonished against “night-before” writing, which always stemmed a good flow of different ideas.

Speaking on other trends commonly observed at Swarthmore, Anderson pointed out that many students “often suffer from self-doubt or some other symptom of perfectionism. That needs to be shelved and forgotten about.” Swatties faced with a blank screen and blinking cursor can attest to the endless frustrations of perfectionism and/or writer’s block.

Sharpe warned the audience not to “noogie the details” comparing the meticulous writing of an intro paragraph to an artist beginning a portrait by first fully and perfectly drawing a nose rather than a rough sketch of the face. Sharpe then went on to remind students that “nothing you write is precious. You have to be able to throw it out, and that can, in turn, help you put something down on paper.”

Each panelist did specifically discuss types of writing processes particular to his or her field. Professor Sharpe talked about the different approaches he took in writing an op-ed as compared to an explanatory article or theoretical policy piece while Amy Vollmer spoke on the more persuasive (grant proposals, recommendations) or documentative (lab reports) writing she undertook.

As a poet, Professor Anderson elaborated on evolving creative journeys in writing poetry. She specifically cited using “open-endedness, particularity, appreciation of ambiguity, and the ‘so-what'” as central steps to her process. Anderson also talked about ways in which she actively looked to enrich the atmosphere in which she explored her poem either by looking at histories and etymologies or doing physical research.

Anderson said one of her main difficulties was the premature conclusion of her writing process where she “found [her] afterthoughts to be better than the ones originally articulated.” Again, she stressed taking the time to think and write through any difficulties that arise before finding ways to bring one’s writing to closure.

All three panelists spoke of writing, regardless of the type of writing being done, in terms of maintaining a conversation. This dialog could be with themselves or with the intended audience or with colleagues. Vollmer posited that the “best scientists [she] met were always great story-tellers who could keep anyone engaged” while Anderson said creative writing could be likened to “writing a letter to someone you care about.”

The discussion culminated with an open Q & A session. The tried-and-true aphorisms of “read it aloud!”, “set deadlines for yourself”, “communicate with your professor”, and “revise, revise, revise” were revisited. The panel was ultimately concluded with a generalized insight to the entire writing process from Sharpe: “treat writing not as a task or assignment but as an exercise of the mind, the life of the mind.”

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