Writing, writing, bane of my life

I know, me and everyone else, ever. As I was saying earlier, though, I ran into more writer’s block than I was prepared for. Like that post, this one is also a post about teaching.

Useful thing I have discovered: I write better when I’m teaching.

There are a few factors to this:

  • Perversely, I’m more productive when I have more demands on my time. Particularly if the demand, on top of my regular courseload, is a people-oriented job; if it gives me structure to my week and short-term deadlines which might otherwise be lacking.
  • Said people-oriented jobs often keep me feeling good about myself.  They give me plenty of small ways to feel effective and efficient. Retail worked well for this; front office work wasn’t too bad either; and teaching is brilliant.
  • Marking is the best writing training anyone ever invented.

Let’s talk about the last one a bit more.

Lesser Known Editing and Proofreading Marks - a list of silly/snarky proofreading marksFirstly, marking is similar to editing. And editing is excellent writing training. I edited my friends’ essays and had my friends edit mine all the way through undergrad; and I had the boon – or bane – of a merciless copy-editor in my teacher/mentor M. Eventually, I learned to look at things and think what would M. say about this?* I in turn subject my (un)fortunate undergrads to this treatment. And one upside of turning my editor-brain back on is that am critically reviewing my own work as I go. Bonus!

The second thing is that I’ve been sick. And when sick, I seem to end up in a state of semi-functionality where I can take information in, but find it hard to put it back out again in a hierarchical or analytical fashion. Everything I wrote between, oh, January and April and to be completely rewritten because it had no structure at all.

You know who else has trouble putting out information in a hierarchical and analytical fashion? Undergrads. If I benefited from the copy-editing side of marking most from the outstanding students, the decent-but-not-brilliant students gave me something useful, too. In the course of figuring out Simple Steps To Improving Your Structure/Paragraphs/Introductions* * For Second Years, I accidentally taught myself how to fix problems even when my brain is coated in cotton wool.

Practice non-random punctuation and sensible acts of grammarThere was that one spectacular week when I ran a tutorial on “common structural errors and how to fix them”. I used a hypothetical essay question, so as not to pick on anyone in particular; and that  hypothetical question just happened to relate to the chapter I was writing. Not a single mistake covered in that tutorial was absent from my draft at the time! That was depressing.

Looking at my own work in relation to the work that comes across my desk from students has another benefit, too: it’s helps snap me out of perfectionism. I could run myself in circles trying to make something perfect; or I could look at it and think how would I tell the second-years to fix this? If it’s fixed sufficiently that I could show it to a bright student as an example of “writing problem: fixed”, that will do for a first draft! And then we can rinse and repeat this process on subsequent drafts.


* I had the great satisfaction of sharing workspace with two MDST undergrads one afternoon, while one of them edited the other’s essay. I’m not sure there’s any more gratifying words to hear than “would you rather hear this from me, or Amy?”
** I promised someone a workshop on conclusions. However, I’m still not sure I know how to write a conclusion! Problematic.

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