Lately, writing has been on my mind. A lot. Perhaps because I am always writing in some fashion or that my students are currently working on writing assignments. No matter the source of inspiration, I am wrestling with what potential roadblocks get in our way when it comes time to write. One of those areas is the actual starting point when it comes to writing: You need to have something to say.
Skills Related to Writing
If we think about a typical writing assignment in a history, humanities, or social science course, often essays are based on what we have learned from reading on the topic. Whether they are assigned readings from a textbook or articles, or from researching on our own, we need to acquire the filling that goes into a quality piece of writing. That filling is the knowledge and understanding we have gained on that topic. If we don’t have that knowledge, then we will have nothing, of substance, to say.
You Can Take Shortcuts, but…
Taking shortcuts now may work out, but in the long run, they will catch up to you. I experienced this back in the winter. I’m currently taking some graduate U.S. history courses to keep my teaching license up-to-date. Plus, I get to learn more about the American past. It’s a win-win.
The course did a great job helping students conduct research for their final paper. I had to do an annotated bibliography by the sixth week of the 12-week class. I found enough sources on my topic to fulfill the bibliography assignment. A partial draft was due by Week 10; then the final version was due in Week 12. What I did not plan for was not having enough to say to fill the 15-20 page requirement. I got to page 10 and then my mind went blank. I had nothing left to say to support my argument, at least based on the credible sources I found for my bibliography assignment. I could have rambled for another five pages, but I knew that was not going to cut it if I wanted a good grade.
The Guilty Culprit
I was not feeling the class, so this is partially why I think I struggled to write the paper, but ultimately, I did not know and understand enough on my topic to complete the final paper assignment. Eventually, I figured it out, but I was scrambling around finding sources to pull in here and there to finish the paper. I did it, but I was not happy with the final product. I knew I could have done better. The culprit—not reading enough earlier on in the research process to be able to inform my understanding of the topic. In other words, to actually have something semi-intelligent to say without regurgitating junk over and over.
Why didn’t I do the work needed so I wouldn’t put myself in that situation? Time. I did not set aside enough time to read, explore, and research my topic. (Plus, if I’m honest, I thought I could wing it.) The sources I did find, I did not dive into and wrestle with them, and take notes on what I was reading and my thoughts of what I was reading. If I had done that, to begin with, I would have had enough material to write about in my paper.
To be a better writer, we have to be better readers. We need to consume enough information to have something to say in our writing. Whether it is a big research project or a short writing assignment, we need enough of that filling to connect the mechanics, the nuts and bolts of writing.