This week I’ve had to work a little harder than usual to connect with two challenging students. It’s not just that they’re challenging me, it’s that their struggles mirror my own.
Both of these fresh writers have responded to my feedback about needing to develop their ideas through examples and detail by saying they don’t want to “write extra words just to write extra words” or use “vapid and arbitrary filler.”
It’s frustrating because one of the students is a good writer, and could be a great writer if willing to push through the work of having to think and reflect. The other student is a mediocre writer, but could certainly become a better writer—if the effort were there.
I haven’t heard back from either after the latest round of emails and encouragement, and at this point, the “I’m OK with losing points on my assignments because of the way we disagree,” comment from the first student, I doubt I will.
These young writers have been on my mind all week because I want to push them to be better writers, but also because I’m dealing with my own sense of self-righteousness and “what is all this arbitrary shit?” at my full-time job.
A couple of months ago, our team put in place a new workflow for our work. Yes, a workflow. Something like this:
When I’m teaching composition or research writing, I call similar structures mind maps, because they kind of help the student writer lay out all of his or her ideas and see how they logically flow (or don’t) with the other ideas. They are good organizational tools in that context.
In the context we’re using the thing at work, it is more of a tool to direct the way we work. Start with W, move to X, then Y, then Z. Before you get to Y though, you must have done W and X.
While the logic of getting to one point after first visiting another makes sense when tying your shoes or painting a house, the writing process is not always like that. X does not always follow W when writing. And all storytellers know that sometimes en medias res is the BEST place to begin.
So this workflow is bad enough as it is, dictating how I work and when I take which steps and how I clear those steps with before I take them. But in addition to the workflow, we added a spreadsheet to the mix too.
One of the first points in the workflow is documenting seven various elements of our story to determine whether or not it is worth writing. But here, the kicker for me is that “worthiness” is not necessarily based on the quality of the story itself, but whether or not it is going to bring clients to our door. So to me, new to spreadsheet documentation of my ideas and just a couple of years into the writing-as-marketing world, it is, to channel my student, writing words just to write words.
So as my students take issue with my comments about how valuable it is to think through what it is they want to say, and how they say it, I’m struggling to give them advice that I myself have a hard time taking right now. And in my own reflection, I think I’ve found common ground for all of us (not for myself and those who love workflows spreadsheets, just my students and I):
1) Writing is a creative process, and often it is in the process of writing it that real truths and real value are discovered. Saying what the value is ahead of time isn’t always possible, and sometimes it’s not even possible in the middle, either. But unless one practices writing, and practices thinking about how to improve, neither improvement nor value will be attained.
2) At the office, I’ve been gritting my teeth and filling out the spreadsheet, and following the workflow as much as I can bear. You know why, right?
Because it’s my job.
Just like my students’ job right now is to work on their writing.
And therein lies the real truth, the one that my students need to learn, and that I sometimes need to remember: No matter how creative it is, or how cathartic or how important, or how much money you are getting paid (or paying), writing requires work.
Thanks, student 1 and student 2, for the reminder that sometimes you just have to buck up and do the work. It sure made today’s spreadsheet/workflow meeting easier to get through. I hope you, too, find that sense of duty in your own way as our flow of work continues.