Taking Ownership of the Writing Process
By Anders Wallace with Erin Garrow
Earlier this week I sat down with Erin Garrow, a student fellow at the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development. Erin is part of the Graduate Writing Consultations team here at the office. Every week, he meets with students from any of the Graduate Center’s programs—PhD as well as Master’s students and alumni too—to help them craft their writing through a 45-minute one-on-one consultation.
Before joining the GC’s English program, Erin worked in the publishing industry as an editor. I wanted to ask Erin about his experiences as a writing consultant here at GC. More specifically, I wanted to learn his tips for writing more effectively, regardless of what program or academic level you’re in.
In this post, I dive into Erin’s tips for writing effectively at any level, for any audience. There is also useful advice on how to have a more effective meeting with a GC Graduate Writing consultant.
You can sign up to meet with Erin or any other member of the team. (Learn more about our Graduate Writing Consultations.)
Making the Most of Your Writing Consultation
The Graduate Writing Services at GC has been up and running for a little over a year. Erin and his team have seen a wide range of students asking for all kinds of writing help—from brainstorming or getting feedback on writing style and composition to topic, methods, evidence, and argumentation. They also see a wide variety of student work: conference papers, course papers, theses, journal articles, dissertation chapters, and even job application letters.
Most students visit a Graduate Writing consultant for one of two reasons. In one scenario, they’d like help with word choice and grammar. Students in this camp may or may not be ESL speakers. But even if English is your native language, getting another set of eyes on something you’ve written can provide you with feedback and self-confidence to tackle the writing process.
The second camp is not so different from the first. In the second scenario, students may feel fine about their use of grammar, syntax, and word choice. But they feel like they’ve been writing all alone in a vacuum. What they really want is an external reflection on what they’ve written. Knowing that you’re not in it alone isn’t just a confidence booster. It’s also a great way to identify underlying dynamics in your writing—what you don’t know that you don’t know, so- called “unknown unknowns”—that may be secretly holding you back.
Graduate Writing consultations begin when you hand the consultant a piece of writing and explain what you’d like help with. Typically, consultants like Erin then read through your piece. Reading helps them put the issue you’ve identified in context. As they read, consultants may find that the thing you’re worried about isn’t as big of a deal. They may discover something else that’s underlying this issue. Maybe it’s an organizational issue of coherence; maybe it’s a matter of what question your writing is seeking to answer; or what methodology you’re using to analyze your topic.
Part of what makes a Writing Services consultation so valuable is that our consultants give you an external reflection on what you’ve written. If you’re a writer, this lets you step out of your own head and get to understand what is concretely there, in the writing itself, that makes sense to someone else. This helps you become aware of what implicit knowledge you may have about the topic that’s not making it into the written product. It can help you understand how to more effectively write what you’re trying to say.
As readers, we’re almost always familiar (intuitively, if not consciously) of a narrative structure that makes sense. In any written work there’s a pattern that’s there and a pattern that’s not there. When we become writers, our job is to name that pattern in a way that we find honest and compelling. Our task is to organize variables (“x,” “y,” and “z”) into a narrative, a hypothesis, and a set of analytic methods to understand the topic we’re writing about.
But it’s rarely as easy as that. For example, you may not put x, y, and z together at the right time, or in the right order. You may not even be sure what x, y, and z are! After reading your piece, the Writing Services consultant may tell you what they think x, y, and z are. They may get it wrong, but that gives you an opportunity to get clear in your own mind about your argument. Even if they get it right, this externalization and reflection of your thought process can be worthwhile. It lets you reimagine what you’ve written in a way that may unlock new directions for your piece.
When you go into your consultation, it’s a good idea to get clear in advance about what you want help with. But it’s also important to be flexible, open-minded, and willing to reconsider your writing from a different perspective. During your conversation with a consultant, what you originally thought you’d want to fix may instead become a smaller part of a bigger conversation. If that’s the case, the consultation gives you space and time for that perspective to emerge and bear fruit. Often academics are especially good at this, because they are attuned to subtlety, complexity, and nuances of meaning.
But flexibility isn’t always a good thing. Too much flexibility, as a writer, means that you may not have thought enough about your hypothesis and what issues you’d like to address in your piece. For example, a typical problem graduate students face is that they get inundated with theory. In their writing, they may often find themselves floating adrift in a sea of other people’s scholarship, so-called secondary literature. Other people come to Writing Services because their professor told them to. While this isn’t in itself a bad thing, it can encourage some people to avoid taking ownership of their writing. They may not know what they’re trying to do. The best writing consultations happen when a writer can identify an object they’re writing about and a method they’re using to talk about it.
Find Your Form and Love it!
One of the most useful things we can do as writers is to find forms, or genres, to help us organize our writing. Forms are conventions. That’s because they serve a purpose in sharpening our thoughts. Forms allow us to have an object of attention as well as a method of attending to that object. Just like the dissertation prospectus is a form, so too are journal articles, conference abstracts, course papers, literature reviews, course presentations, job application letters, and even blog posts.
At the Writing Services office, consultants are fundamentally trying to help you perceive thinking, which is inherently ambiguous, and shape it into more useful forms. Forms are useful not just because they’re transactional, but because they allow you to stop thinking. They streamline your thinking because they offload cognition onto an accepted medium, or convention, of how to communicate. As writers, forms give you an exit strategy—a means to declare victory.
As a writer, take the time to discover what the forms that matter to you are, and start thinking about them as forms. Today more than ever we are faced with a sea of information and noise. Understanding and practicing writing forms helps us organize information. Think of it as a filing cabinet. Writing is just another way of organizing stuff.
For each step in the writing process—from brainstorming and free-writing, to performing literature reviews, writing abstracts, and iterating through drafts—figure out what forms you’re going to set in front of yourself that can help you organize your thinking. Try to find the forms that matter in your academic discipline and emulate them. Emulating doesn’t mean being derivative, in the same way that writing in the English language doesn’t mean you’re being unoriginal (though of course you should always be attentive to avoid plagiarism).
If you’re still in coursework, you don’t need a Writing Services consultant to reap the benefits of forms. Just look at your syllabi closely to see what forms you’re being asked to produce. Try to practice organizing your thoughts about the class (readings, lectures, etcetera) using those forms.
If you’re beyond your coursework, understanding forms may be even more valuable. This is because the things you use in one form often end up in other forms as well: things like an exposition of topic, a statement of purpose (“This paper does x in order to show y”), or a declaration of methods. Forms help you organize your thoughts and research materials as you move into longer written work like the dissertation itself.
The basic pattern of articulating a problem or question; trying to name a method that would resolve that question; articulating tentative results based on your initial exploration of that method; and trying to organize your final argument around an overarching thesis—this is a pattern that appears throughout academic writing in any field. Practicing this pattern in one form (such as a conference abstract) helps you build a skill that extends into other forms, like writing a journal article or pitching a course proposal for an academic job application.
Forms are also good in a vocational perspective. Whether your future lies in academia or non-academic jobs, getting good at forms will help you write in other genres to reach broader audiences. Identifying the norms that govern any piece of writing—whether descriptive, analytical, journalistic, persuasive, didactic, or informative—is an incredibly useful skill in all kinds of fields outside the ivory tower.
Thanks, Erin, for sharing your writing tips with us!
Also consider that the benefits of working with a Writing Services consultant aren’t limited to the resources available at the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development. You can engineer these relationships outside of formal institutional structures. The classic example is to get a writing buddy with whom you share and give feedback on each other’s work. You may even discover that having an external reflection is helpful in other areas of your life; from academic professionalization, to personal relationships, and even navigating the job search process.
In the meantime, the Writing Services consultants are available to help you with your writing needs. You can schedule an appointment online. You can also watch this video to preview a session and learn more about how to come prepared to get the most from your consultation.