Writing is sometimes difficult and messy, even for professional writers. I recently attended a talk about writing instruction in academia with fellow writers and writing teachers. When asked, “Who here likes to write?” not a single hand went up. This isn’t surprising because, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, the pleasure in writing isn’t in the act itself, but in the finished product. Writing itself isn’t always a fun activity.
Compounding this is the persistent myth that writing must be perfect. This myth of perfection, that every word must be the exact right word, makes an already trying task even more difficult. I teach a writing class that focuses on style and method, and this misconception is one of the major hurdles that many of my students face. At the start of semester, many just want to be told the magic formula for easily writing well.
As most writers will admit, such a formula doesn’t exist. What do exist are methods to address lack of fun and the intimidation of perfection. In his book Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, Kenneth Goldsmith describes an assignment he gives his students: choose a piece of writing by someone else and simply type it all out. While Goldsmith uses this assignment to address issues of remix and creativity, it’s also a great way to get students writing.
The act of forcing fingers through the motions of stringing words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, of experiencing language and syntax and punctuation in a way that removes the pressure of authorship allows students to focus on style: how the words flow together, how the sentences are balanced in structure and rhythm, how the writer’s voice is reflected in their stylistic choices.
Writing is a difficult process and coming to terms with this allows us to savor the joy of seeing our words laid out on the page all the more. In the classroom, this activity sets the stage for discussing style along with writing fears, invention techniques, and ethos as writers. The focus on reproducing writing gets students past the anxieties of the looming blank page and ready to write on their own. It helps them to develop realistic expectations for what the writing process feels like: sometimes tedious, sometimes difficult, rarely perfect. It gets them started, which is often the hardest aspect of writing. That’s why this activity is also a great trick for all writers who are struggling with writer’s block. Reproducing someone else’s writing can distract you long enough to get creatively unstuck and get to what most would agree is the pleasurable aspect of writing: the act of having written.
Angela Shetler is an alumna of the Professional Writing program at Michigan State University. She currently teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Sydney, Australia. Fueled by coffee, you can find her tweeting at @ashetler and writing for beyondwords, a blog for professional writers, editors, and designers.