The Myth of Bad Writers by Zach Wilson

Post date: Oct 25, 2016 7:08:20 PM

This semester I have worked with dozens of writers from disciplines outside of English and the humanities, many of whom have specific focuses in areas of mathematics or science. Nearly every writer from one of these disciplines begins their consultation with a quiet and sheepish disclaimer, the words almost eerily identical from one individual to the next: “I’m not a good writer, so don’t expect this to be good.”My reaction to this statement is to smile and present them with a disclaimer of my own. I tell them that almost everyone in their position conveys this exact sentiment upon entering a consultation. I also tell them that I never enter a consultation with expectations; only curiosity and interest.

Still, each time this interaction occurs, I find myself having the same thought: how have we allowed the gulf between disciplines to grow so wide that someone outside of a traditionally literary field feels the need to voluntarily state that they are not a ‘good’ writer? This is troubling to me for several reasons, not the least of which is that so many of these individuals believe there are specific academic standards for what makes a writer ‘good.’

I had the opportunity to represent the Writing Center at an Undergraduate Research Fair with Dr. Sully several weeks ago. I witnessed firsthand the number of students who glanced at our banner and averted their eyes, clearly hoping we wouldn’t address them to discuss a potential visit. Those who were brave enough to approach our table were primarily involved in the arts or history, but we had our fair share of mathematicians and engineers as well (admittedly the candy may have helped draw them in). What I found most interesting about my interactions with these latter categories of students is that virtually all of them were shocked to learn that the Writing Center assists writers with papers across all disciplines, styles, formats, and stages of completion. “You mean you could help me with a scholarship essay?” one girl asked incredulously. She was an engineering major and explained that she was uncertain about how to approach writing a personal narrative. “I’m such a bad writer,” she said.

How can we make writing more approachable to those who find themselves feeling overwhelmed or insecure when faced with an essay or research paper? Bridging the cognitive gap between empirical sciences and liberal arts is difficult for many of us, and it can be hard to convince many math or engineering students that even English majors have insecurities about their writing. One way to address this issue may be to restructure the explanations of what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writers are and to reteach these new definitions from the ground up, in our consultations, our classrooms, and our peer interactions. Individuals may feel less intimidated if they knew that the only requirement for being a good writer was showing up and doing the work. Perhaps they would feel more confident in themselves if they knew that when they arrive for their consultation, prepared and ready to learn, they’ve already earned this title.

Reconditioning ourselves and others to consider new ideas about ‘good’ writing is a process, and in the meantime I’m sure to have many more consultations begin with uncertainty and self-doubt. Still, maybe I’ll add another line to my disclaimer the next time a writer tells me they aren’t good: “The only bad writers are the ones who don’t write.”