Chapter 1: HOW I LEARNED
Four Stories about Learning to Write
(Writing for Pleasure)
Temple of Dr. Doom
(Writing for an Audience)
(Learning to Organize)
Joyful Dread of my Editor
(Learning to Revise)
See also "Six
Student Responses about Starting to Write."
I would like to start these chapters by telling
you several of my most interesting experiences as a developing writer. They
range from writing as a small child about a chicken to learning to write in
college, and then to professional writing.
My first memorable experience with writing came when
I was in kindergarten and we were assigned to make a book. "Wow!" I
thought, in whatever passes for the thinking of a kindergartener. "How can
I write a whole book?" I asked the nearest expert, Mom (when I was
five, she knew everything). She explained that all I had to do was choose some pictures, paste them onto some
sheets, which we would staple together, and then write some words to go with
each picture. I figured could handle that.
Still, it seemed such a big challenge, and the
feeling I remember having while working on that project was a
tongue-between-the-teeth kind of thing--effort and concentration. I loved my
next door neighbor's baby chicks (we lived in the country), and so I asked if I
could make up a story about a baby chick. "What do you want to call
my mom asked. "Charlie," I said. So we hunted for pictures in farm
magazines, cut, and pasted. I dictated lengthy, intelligent sentences to
my mom like "This is Charlie" and Charlie is a chick."
By the time I was done, I was stunned at what I (with a
little help from the expert, Mom) had accomplished. I became convinced
that I could be a writer if I wanted. I don't have the book anymore.
But the feeling stuck with
school years, I managed to keep that feeling most of the time. However, I
almost lost it when I met my dreaded nemesis in my first-year college English
class, Literature I. Let's call him Dr. Doom. Dr. Doom mostly
lectured on how to interpret our literature readings. When he did
encourage discussion, he would finish it not only by telling people why they were wrong, but also by doing so in such a way that it made each
speaker sound rather stupid. The man not
only had no real social graces but also seemed a bit cruel and, on top of that, determined to depress
everyone, himself included, because of our seeming incompetence. I had no idea what he
wanted, and he offered no clues. This should have
been a clue in itself--that I might need more help than I was getting--but I didn't notice
Instead, when he assigned us our
first of four graded papers, I determined to work harder than most people and turn in
an impressive intellectual commentary. We were applying a reading from
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychology, to one of Shakespeare's greatest
plays, Hamlet. I not only read both carefully, but I also spent
twenty-nine hours working on the paper. Most other people, I learned (by asking
around), spent an average of maybe fifteen hours on the assignment. Little did I
understand, then, that spending a lot of extra time is never sufficient if you
do not know what the teacher wants. So, I wrote and I wrote, and I put two
or three major thoughts into every long sentence. When I look at this
paper now, even I have trouble understanding it.
To make a long story short, when I
received that first paper back, there were almost no marks on it except at the
end. There, he had given me a big D-. And he wrote a short sentence:
"This is bullshit."
I was so taken aback that I had no
idea what to do or say. After class, I walked up to him and asked him,
trying to hide the trembling in my voice, "What does...this mean?" I
couldn't even say the word "bullshit" to him out loud, for I had been
brought up in a small country school where one never, ever used such words in
writing, let alone aloud, to a teacher. In fact--something I haven't yet
mentioned--this guy was also a
minister, and he wore a clergyman's collar to our classroom every day. I'd
never known a minister who would call anything "bullshit."
Instead of speaking, I showed him
what he wrote. He waved his hand in the air. "It's obvious you
didn't read the material," he said.
"I read it," I
said. "I read all of it, some of it twice."
"Well, he said, "you
didn't read it carefully."
I had no idea what to say.
So I simply walked away. What was wrong with my material? Today, I
still have that old paper, and whenever I look at it now, many years later, I
understand exactly what I did wrong. First, I had written my paper in what
today we might call "freewriting" or spontaneous writing, with as many
ideas and reflections packed into it as possible: in other words, I didn't
organize it carefully around a few major ideas. Second, I did not support
my ideas with a number of quotations (and paraphrases) from the materials we
were reading: in a paper without quotes, he couldn't tell whether I had read the
material and he couldn't see how my logic worked as I made my points.
Third, I had made the mistake of not using his own theory of literature.
He had a very specific theory, and I never had been taught that theory in high
Unfortunately, I had no idea at
the time what I had done wrong. Before the second graded paper was due, I
looked at the papers of several people who had received B's on the first paper
(I could find no one who had received an A). Then I tried to write papers
that were more like theirs. I managed to get my grade up to a C on this
second paper. And I still didn't know what he wanted.
Then all the English teachers in
the department handed out a set of five sample A level papers to us. Dr.
Doom told us all that he wouldn't have handed out these sample papers at all if
he weren't required to do so: he didn't believe in sample papers, and these
weren't very good samples, he said. In fact, he only liked two of the
five. I didn't care how many he liked or didn't like; I was mightily
relieved, for here were two clear examples of what he expected. I
personally didn't like either of the samples very much at all; however, the two
of them gave me a road map to follow in writing papers for him.
It worked. On the third
graded paper, I worked hard to offer a central idea like the samples did,
organize what I was writing into a distinct pattern that I now understand is a
particular type of literary analysis (an explicacion
de texte or explication of text), and use plenty of quotations and
paraphrases. My grade on this third paper was a B. Dr. Doom seemed
reluctant to give me the B, but he grumpily--in his comments--allowed that I had
performed most of the intellectual functions that he wanted.
my grade for the course hung in the balance as I started my fourth paper.
I knew that if I could just get an A on the final paper, I would receive a B for
the entire course. If not, I would receive a C (and another D- on this
final paper might give me a D for the course). So I worked very, very hard
to give him exactly the kind of paper he wanted. I examined the two sample
papers even more carefully and discovered that in my previous papers, I had been
too general and broad, so in my fourth paper I chose what I felt was the most
important one-half page of the entire novel we had read, and I critiqued it in
great detail, showing how it was an example of everything else that happened in
the novel. I organized my paper very well, analyzing step by step, and used lots
the end, I received an A- on this final paper--a very good grade from Dr. Doom. At first, however, Dr. Doom
lost my paper and was convinced I had never turned it in. Three days later
he found it, and my grade for the semester was secure.
course, Dr. Doom made a lot of mistakes that good modern teachers do not.
He didn't really teach writing, but rather expected us to automatically
understand how to write. He also expected us to think exactly like he
did. And he expected that he did not have to teach us how to understand
literature using his method: either we knew how or we didn't. He was a
very tough teacher, but that was okay because some of my best teachers have been
tough. Unfortunately, he also was cold and, arguably, cruel and impatient
if he didn't like you (as he seemed not to like me).
However, no matter how bad or good he was, I learned a great lesson from
having to work with him: audience. He was my audience, he wanted a certain
kind of writing, and that was the kind of writing I needed to give him in order
to do well. I wish he could have taught this lesson to me; instead, I had
to learn it the hard way, on my own, in spite of him. However, it is one
of the most important lessons to learn in writing: audience. I have
returned to it time and again over the years, and I still do: in writing for
other instructors, in writing for popular magazines and scholarly journals, in
writing for other teachers, and even in writing personal letters to friends and
loved ones. You don't need to lose your own identity, but you do need to write
using words and patterns that your audience understands. It's a
little like learning a foreign language, or even learning to talk like a
chemist, a football coach, a dance instructor, or a business person. Each
academic discipline and each profession has its own language for talking, and
each--when papers must be written--has its own words and patterns for how these
papers need to be written so that they make sense to everyone in that discipline
or business. Audience is one of the most important considerations
to make in any writing task.
learned this lesson the hard way in my second semester of college. I could
write a very good explicacion de texte
by the time I was finished with Dr. Doom's class. I couldn't write other
types of college papers. However, at least I knew, then, that each teacher
would expect something different, and it was my job to find out just what he or
she wanted. In a way, each time we enter a class in which there is a paper
(or a speech, laboratory experiment, or other activity) to be completed, we make
a contract with that instructor to learn how he or she wants us to write or
communicate. This is true whether the instructor is good or bad at
explaining it to us. It is our job to reach out and learn to "speak
as she speaks," whether she helps or not.
Ideally, when we are a student, our expectations of our own academic learning
must be higher than they are of our instructor's ability to teach. If we
just happen to also be blessed with an instructor who teaches well, that is all
the better. However, the responsibility for learning always is ours.
We must make the first effort, no matter what, reaching out to learn whatever is
in the instructor's head. As a student, I like to be able to shake hands
with an instructor after a course, as a sign of my respect for what I have
learned. And I may have to work hard to learn anything from an instructor
if she is not a very good teacher. However, she almost always does have
something for me to learn, and if I work hard, ask a lot of questions, and get
help when I need it, I usually can give that handshake of respect.
This next story is about what most people in college
need to learn in order to to move from being a beginning to an intermediate
college writer. Your first-year college writing classes are supposed to
help you accomplish this. Here's how I did it.
mentioned above, I didn't really learn much about how to write from my
teacher in my first year of college. I was still really a beginning
college writer. The
experience that changed me from a beginning to an intermediate writer happened
in the last half of my second year of college. I was taking my third
course in a row from Mr. Golding, a boyish-looking guy in his thirties who acted
very formal in and out of the classroom. The class was Literature
III. However formal his behavior was,
he really opened our eyes about literature.
Mr. Golding often started our class hour by reading to us. Our books included
some of the finest in literature, from Greek plays by Euripides and Aristophanes
to contemporary works by T.S. Eliot, Lawrence Durrell, and others. Mr.
Golding read in a richly modulated low-tenor voice, inflecting words for both
drama and meaning. When he was reading, he looked at each of us in turn,
his eyes shining with the steel of confident revelation and worlds springing
from his words. I could have listened for hours, but he gave us ten
minutes here, fifteen there. Then he would lecture a bit, and finally he
would turn us toward discussion. At first during discussion times we felt
unsure, unsafe, wondering if our sophomoric attempts at judging this great
literature before this great teacher would lead him to rain down scorn on
us. However, the bravest (or most foolhardy) of us led the way. Mr.
Golding listened, nodded, and simply asked if anyone would like to agree or
disagree. Soon, under his fair and tolerant gaze, all were eager to hear
each other's arguments and lend our own.
We had three papers to write for him. You have
to understand something about learning how to write when I was in school:
whether it was junior high, high school, or college, most teachers figured that
either you could write well or you couldn't. Few of them actually bothered
trying to teach writing. "Writing" in those days meant "grammar." I
had lots of grammar lessons throughout elementary, junior high, and high school.
That was "writing lessons," and though I learned a lot about grammar, I didn't
really learn how to write much more than a correct sentence from it.
came to Mr. Golding, I very badly wanted to write well, partly because I admired
him so much and wanted to show him I was really learning, and partly because I
did not want to look stupid to him. My first paper was not bad, a
"B" effort, if I remember, which helped me relax somewhat.
Apparently others did not fare as well, for I recall him trying to coach us to
do better on the second paper. "It's not that hard," he told us,
in those or similar words. He held up his fingers, one by one.
"First you have an introduction in which you describe your thesis.
Then you have several sections in which you detail it. Use quotations so I
know what you mean. Then provide a conclusion. Don't write it all at
once," he said. "Take your time." He looked off in
the distance. "When I write," he said, "I spend a little
time at it, then lay it down. The next day, I do some more, and so forth,
each day, until I am done. Sometimes I have to rewrite parts of it."
He made it sound so simple. The part about
having a thesis with several points sounded familiar, and I was relieved that he
didn't want the much more difficult explication of text, a complicated form of
literary analysis I had learned (the hard way--on my own--without any help from
our rather difficult, unfriendly teacher) the year before.
important, Mr. Golding's casual mention of his own, personal writing process was
a revelation to me. I was surprised that he didn't sit down and create a
paper miraculously in an afternoon--I could visualize him drinking fine wine and
eating chocolates as he did so. I was equally surprised that he actually
took several days or more to write thoughtfully, section by section. And
"sometimes I have to rewrite parts" amazed me. I had been
struggling toward just such a realization in my own writing of college papers: I
needed to take more time, and I usually needed to rewrite. I had thought
this might mean I was mediocre at best: perhaps only dull, plodding people could
not write a masterful paper in one sitting. That a literary scholar of his
caliber needed several periods for writing--and actually had to
revise--confirmed in me that this method of writing was useful, acceptable, even
day on, I developed what I now think of as my "intermediate" stage of
development as a writer: working with a plan that included several important
steps in my writing, just as Mr. Golding had revealed. My plan certainly
worked on Mr. Golding: he gave my last two papers in his class
"A's." The next year, I decided to major in philosophy.
Talk about writing papers! I was constantly writing, and as I did so, I
perfected my version of Mr. Golding's system. I usually started my papers
on a Monday or Tuesday, allowing about two to three hours per afternoon in which
to write and research. I would do this during the weekdays--or for two
sets of weekdays if the paper was a larger one. Then, on Friday, before
going out for the night, I would lay out all the pieces and parts of my
handwritten papers (this was before computers) on the floor of my one-room
apartment. I would walk over and between them gingerly when I came home so
that they were there all night. If I was stuck, I often would do the same
thing on Saturday night. Two or three times a day, I would find myself
looking at them and wondering about the order I wanted to use for the different
thoughts and ideas. I would then experimentally--and briefly--shuffle the
papers into a new order, sometimes using scissors to cut sheets into half or
quarter sheets with ideas I wanted to place in a different location on the
I can remember a number of times when, upon hearing
a knock on my door, I would take a great leap over my papers, simultaneously
yelling "Wait!" and landing against the door to keep it from opening. The
problem was that when people would open my door, the wind would come in behind
them and blow away my carefully crafted order. This upset both my
girlfriend and a couple of close friends until I eventually learned to start
locking my door whenever my floor was in "paper mode."
Finally, on Sunday, I would get serious, make a few
final adjustments to the order, if necessary, and then pick up the papers and
write my introduction. I always wrote my introduction last because, by the
time I was done with everything else, I finally knew exactly what I was trying
to say. Then I would revise the papers in their new order, making
connecting transitions, sentences, and paragraphs. I would then edit and,
finally, type it.
And I got
A's. Throughout that year and my next--my junior and senior years--I got
A's on papers in almost all my classes. I have continued to use this
pattern throughout my adulthood for any type of writing assignment that is new
or the conclusion of which I am unsure until I am done writing, whether for
freelance magazine writing, professional proposal writing, or for papers for
graduate schools, conference presentations, and academic journals. It
wasn't until I returned to graduate school again, fifteen years after Mr. Golding's lessons, that I discovered a whole new method of writing had sprung
forth in colleges across the country. This method is called "process
writing." And it is pretty much what Mr. Golding helped me figure out
on my own: writing often is best done in a series of times and steps with
revision not only okay but normal. These lessons now are taught throughout
the country in colleges, high schools, and even in some middle and elementary
The Joyful Dread of a Phone Call from
of Thorough Revision)
I have many stories, but one more is among the most
important. It occurred several years after I was done with school, in my
job. It was (and still is) an experience that mixed joy with pain, and it
really helped me very much as a writer. I was a freelance writer for six
years after college, and during that time I rose from selling articles and
stories for just a few dollars to selling them for quite a bit. One of the
editors who helped me the most along the way was a guy I'll call "Harvey."
I first came into contact with Harvey when I sent his magazine an idea for an
article, he sent a note back asking to see the it. I then wrote the
article and sent it to him.
Now the way these things normally work, at least
when you're starting out as a writer and have sent in a manuscript, is that the
magazine editor then will do one of three things: (1) accept it, (2) reject it,
or (3) ask for a revision before deciding. Usually at the lower levels,
where you might get anything from $2 to $200 for an article, you interact with
the editors completely by mail or email.
Now Harvey's magazine was one that paid more than
this, and to my surprise, Harvey called me. I was stunned, having never
talked with an editor by phone. He told me cheerfully that he was
interested in buying my article, but if so, I would have to be willing to revise
it. Even then, if he didn't like the revision, he would retain the right
to reject the article. Then he asked me very nicely if I was interested in
revising for him. I held back the urge to shout "Yes"--for I had never
written for a magazine that paid so well--and, my voice sounding calm, I allowed
that I would be glad to revise. He then said, "Do you have a pen?
I'd like to give you a few notes about what I'd like changed."
few notes." He talked for another fifteen or twenty minutes in
rapid-fire English, and I took two dense pages of notes on what to change.
I thought I was going to die with all that he expected. Then he said,
"Oh, and by the way, I need you to cut the length by one third."
Inside, my heart sank--how could I delete 33% of an article I already felt was
jam packed with everything I wanted to say? He finished by saying, "I
also made a few notes on the manuscript you sent me. I'll put it in the
mail right now. Good luck, and I'll look forward to seeing your
revision. Is three weeks time enough?"
By the time I got off the phone, my heart lay
beating slowly, painfully, somewhere about six feet under my shoes.
Several days later, the manuscript revised, and it was filled with about three
times as many penned notes for revision than any paper I had received back from
a teacher in school.
However, I also recognized that he was giving my
paper more attention than even my best professors had given me in my
highest-level graduate school seminars. This was, I knew, a tremendous
learning opportunity. I knew that if I could succeed in revising this
manuscript, then I had a chance to move a big step up in selling articles, and
he probably would take more from me. During the next two weeks I spent
every spare minute I had trying to do exactly what he asked me to do.
I started with what I felt was one of the hardest
parts of all: deleting one third of my words. I cut paragraphs, read, cut
sentences, read more, and cut words. When I was done, I had only cut about
half as much as I needed to. I read more and began cutting severely: I
started tossing anything that was not absolutely necessary. Wherever one
word would work as well as two, I used just one word. Even if a story or a
phrase was really excellent, if it in any way repeated what I already had said,
I got rid of it. And I was amazed at the result. I thought my paper
would become choppy and lose a lot of its interesting phrases and thoughts.
Instead, it became a powerful, streamlined statement of what I wanted to say,
with immediately relevant and always interesting thoughts, quotations, and
stories. In short, it was one of the best articles I ever had written.
After that, all of Harvey's other suggestions were
easy. They took a large amount of time, and I was very short on sleep for
the next two weeks. However, I worked with a kind of joy in my heart, for
I knew that even if Harvey would not take the final result, I had learned a
powerful lesson as a writer, and the rest was just icing on the cake. His
other suggestions, though minor and numerous, were in many cases helpful, too,
as it turned out. I learned how to better polish my paper because of his
I sent the manuscript back to him, both dreading and
and looking forward to his response. A week later, I received another call
from him. "Hi, Richard!" he greeted me. "About this manuscript you
sent me, do you have a pen? I have a few more revisions to make." My
heart dropping once again, in despair I took more notes. When he was done
five minutes later, I asked, "Does this mean you probably won't publish my
article?" "What?" he asked? "Well of course we'll publish it.
It's very good. All it needs is these few final changes. You did a
great job with it."
I was almost too exhausted and nervous to thank him,
but thank him I did, as heartily as I could. And that was the beginning of
a good, strong editor-writer relationship with Harvey that lasted over a year,
until he moved on to another magazine that did not use freelance writers.
Every time I would send him a new article, he would call me and give me
voluminous notes on changes to make, and he always added that I should cut the
size of the article by one third. One day, at the end of such a call, I
remember commenting, "Harvey, you forgot to tell me something."
"What?" he asked. "I did? What's
"Cut the article by one third."
"What do you mean? It's just fine as it is.
Don't cut it!"
On that day, I felt I had reached a milestone.
I was consistently writing strong, lively articles in which every phrase and
every word counted. In fact, the very last article I wrote for Harvey was
so good that when he told me he was leaving the magazine, I decided to try to
sell it elsewhere. And I did, for about twice what Harvey's old magazine
paid. His work with me helped me move up another significant step, and I
always will be grateful to him. He taught me how to revise and edit like a
These are four of my most important stories about
learning how to write well. The first, "Charlie the Chicken," shows my
first encounter with really writing something that was exciting and meaningful
to me. This can happen to anyone at any age. The second, "The Temple
of Dr. Doom," shows how in spite of my poor teacher, I learned how to write to
satisfy his needs and expectations. This story shows the great importance
of learning to write for your audience, whether that audience is an instructor,
a loved one, or a boss. The third story, "The Light Dawns," shows how I
discovered a basic method of putting papers together that works well for me--the
steps of my own, personal process of writing--something each of us needs to
discover for himself or herself. And the fourth, "The Joyful Dread,"
describes how I seized an opportunity to become a much better writer when an
editor pushed me almost beyond what I could tolerate; and this story also
illustrates how important it is to do thorough, complete, thoughtful revising
and editing so that everything counts in our papers and the stories and ideas in
them leap out to the readers with importance and relevance.
I have been writing for quite awhile, now, and I
have had many dozens of my articles and essays published. I also have had
a couple of handfuls of my stories, poems, and photography published. In
recent years, I have had a number of academic essays published in scholarly
journals and magazines. It must be clear that I like to write. I
still would be a professional writer if I didn't love teaching more.
However, what I like and love is beside the point. What is to the point is
that writing is necessary--large amounts of writing, oftentimes--for many
professionals. Writing well often is one of the keys to success and
advancement. And the great majority of people who need to learn how to
write well will go through experiences similar to mine.
So, I wish you luck with your own versions of
chickens, Dr. Dooms, dawning lights, and joyful dreads. If you accept and
meet their challenges, rather than avoid them, you can become an ever better
See also "Six
Student Responses about Starting to Write."