posted by Amy on May 19
Monday I completed a research paper for my systematic theology class. My goals for the paper went from “I hope it doesn’t suck” to “Wow, what a cool idea.” In that shift, the paper itself went from an unoriginal and boring first draft to something I was excited about sharing with the professor. The idea that grabbed me was a synthesis of my personal experience, some insights I had this semester in other classes and worship experiences, and two strands of thinking from the papers I had found on my subject.
Because of all the time I had allocated to work for other classes, I didn’t have much time to write the paper, but I had plenty of material. As I read I started playing with the idea that ended up being the main point of the paper, and I became more and more engaged with it. As the deadline loomed I had to incorporate that idea into the draft very quickly, but I found that exhilarating, because it was as if I was talking to the scholars, asking them what they thought of my take on the subject. My paper became a report about that conversation, not merely an abstract of other people’s ideas.
I’m glad I figured that out. That’s one more clue that I’ll be able to share with students. Reaching that moment of discovery and engagement is really the goal of writing anything. That is especially true of a theology research paper. With 2,000 years of scholarship available on any aspect of Christian theology, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the mass of words, and to conclude that there’s nothing new to say.
There probably is nothing truly new to say, but each author brings something unique to the story. She or he can have a new conversation with one or two streams of thought, and reach a new insight. If it is new to the writer, it will at least be interesting to the reader, and it might help illuminate someone else’s path.
A classmate (who is not one of my students) told me that he had gotten far more out of the class than he had been able to articulate in his papers. He said he plans to spend the summer studying writing. I told him the only way to get better at writing is to write. The books can help, but the main thing is to do more writing.
I told him about “morning pages.” I learned about it from The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. Set the alarm for thirty minutes before you have to get up, and then, first thing upon waking, write three pages, longhand, nonstop, about whatever comes to mind. Don’t go back and correct or edit. Don’t worry about mechanics. Don’t even re-read anything for at least six weeks, and don’t show it to anyone else. Just write. I told him if he wanted to get better at golf, or at playing the piano, he’d mostly practice golf or piano. He might hire a coach, but the bulk of the improvement would come from practicing the skill.
Writing is a physical activity. We think of it as being a mental process, but that perception comes from a false mind/body dichotomy. The only two ways we have of sharing what we know or what we think are speaking and writing, and both of those activities are done with our bodies. I’ve seen students reach “aha” moments from the simplest bits of advice, and it always comes down to adopting some new physical practice, such as outlining, or mind mapping, or taking notes with a pen and paper. You can’t think your way into being a better writer. You have to write.
Another key to success in academic writing is to have fun chasing ideas. In one class we wrote reviews of academic papers, and we were talked about them in small groups. After I gave an oral review of the paper I had read, a classmate asked if I agreed or disagreed with the author. I said that wasn’t the point. The point of reading other scholars is to find out what they think. Follow the logic, assess strengths and weaknesses in the argument, and file it away mentally. Then read one of the papers or books that the author you just read cites. Then read another paper, and another and another. Follow the trail and find out where it goes.
To succeed at academic writing, a student has to go from seeing it as “working for” a particular professor to seeing it as her or his own mission. In what turned out to be our last session, I asked the student who fired me what she wanted from me. She said she wanted to be able to give each teacher what the teacher expected, as expressed in each individual syllabus. I said there was no way I could do that, because every syllabus is different. I said I could teach her how to write anything–a love letter, a bomb threat, a movie review, an exegesis paper–so the reader would understand her. I told her that if she wrote something good–readable, interesting, substantive, that would get her a better grade than slavishly following instructions about having subheadings or not, or using endnotes instead of footnotes, or whatever. The teachers have to give specific instructions about how to tackle each assignment, and I do spend a lot of time with students helping them detect, analyze and comply with “prompts,” but the main thing is to write a good paper. I actually had proof of that. This semester she and I had the same professor for two different classes. One week we each got a paper back from that professor with exactly the same feedback about how to do better, but I got an A on my paper and my student got a C. I think that was the right result, but it obviously had nothing to do with how well the student and I had followed directions.