ADVICE TO WRITERS By Billy Collins (U.S. Poet Laureate, 2001-2003)
Even if it keeps you up all night, wash down the walls and scrub the floor of your study before composing a syllable.
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way. Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.
The more you clean, the more brilliant your writing will be, so do not hesitate to take to the open fields to scour the undersides of rocks or swab in the dark forest upper branches, nests full of eggs.
When you find your way back home and stow the sponges and brushes under the sink, you will behold in the light of dawn the immaculate altar of your desk, a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.
From a small vase, sparkling blue, lift a yellow pencil, the sharpest of the bouquet, and cover pages with tiny sentences like long rows of devoted ants that followed you in from the woods. – Reprinted from The Apple That Astonished Paris, by Billy Collins (The University of Arkansas Press); 1988.
Is Billy Collins talking about clearing your mind to make way for new ideas? Is he talking about clearing your desk before lifting the “yellow pencil?” I also think he might be talking about the rituals that we sometimes do before writing, i.e., I must clean/do/tend to/finish before I sit down to write. And then, of course, the day is gone.
Since I joined the Department of Professional and Liberal Studies about three years ago, I have been teaching courses that have strong components of writing. In PLS 201 Pro-Seminar in Critical Skills, students write in a variety of formats, which are the following: an introduction using a bio-poem (http://www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/lesson_images/lesson398/biopoem.pdf), a narrative essay, an analysis of a chapter in a text, and an argument essay that is research-based. In PLS 399 Senior Thesis, students develop a topic of interest and a strong thesis, review the relevant research literature, and write a paper that could be 20-25 pages in length. For several years, I taught doctoral students in the educational leadership department in the College of Education, and chaired many dissertation committees. Dissertations vary in length but are usually over 100 pages.
Studying for my initial career did not lead me easily to writing. I was trained as a speech and language pathologist (B.A. and M.A. degrees) and worked with children and adults who had various problems with speech and language: articulation (sounds), receptive and expressive language, stuttering, voice issues, and swallowing disorders. So, my dominant skill was definitely auditory – my “ear” was well trained to evaluate, diagnose, and treat such disorders. Here is a description of what Speech-Language Pathologists do and where they work: http://www.asha.org/careers/professions/slp.htm.
It was not until I entered a PhD program in educational leadership that I began to write more – coursework demanded many and longer papers. To receive the doctoral degree, one must complete a dissertation which is a lengthy process of researching and writing. Professors would most likely say that the dissertation was the longest “paper” they have written, and in many cases, the dissertation becomes at least one published article and sometimes a book. Usually a PhD candidate has a committee composed of professors who read and critique the dissertation in its many stages. The PhD candidate must be open to constructive criticism and willing to make changes based on advice from committee members.
There are lots of books on the market that offer advice to writers, essentially pointing out what to do and what not to do. One book with lots of good pointers is A Writer’s Reference (Hacker & Sommers, 7th edition). Reading about these pointers is one thing, but how do you apply them to actually write? William Zinsser wrote the book, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. In an essay about how he has kept writing well up-to-date for 35 years, Zinsser said that if writing is learned by imitation, he wants his students to imitate the best – hence, his reason for writing a book about writing. In the essay, Zinsser discussed how he evolved his own writing with each new edition of his book. He listened to his readers from book tours which began in colleges and universities, and read books written by a variety of authors (men and women based in the U.S. and abroad).
Summing up, I offer a few recommendations to all those in our academic community who need and want to write (including myself).
- Read, read, read good writing (and journal about what you like, what captivates you, how the author draws you in)
- Read a variety of authors – men and women from the U.S. and other countries
- Find a good time of day (or night) that works well for concentrated writing of at least an hour, and try to keep that time as your writing time
- Clear your mind and lessen your distractions – don’t check email or text messages during your writing time!
- Use those “how to” books and get help from RU’s Writing Center
- Pick a topic to write about that is interesting to you
- Be open to those who critique your writing
- Enjoy the process and products of your writing
Submitted by: Susan Katz, PhD, Associate Professor, firstname.lastname@example.org