On Writing

Adapted from 2021 SOCIOL 101/G Summer School announcement to students

2021 Unibound students presenting on what they learned about sociology through spoken word poetry, rap and singing. Shared with permisson from students. Click play for video and sound

 

In January 2021, I was invited to participate in a kōrero with around twenty Māori and Pasifika highschool leavers and two colleagues from the department of Sociology at Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau (The University of Auckland). Facilitated by my dear friend, scholar and artist, Gene Paul Kiely, this space was created as part of a five-week academic enrichment programme, Unibound, introducing the students to various disciplines in preparation for their university studies.

 

Having spent the prior two days learning about sociology, the students were asked to present on what they had learned.  The medium of presentation was open, however they felt the most comfortable and authentic to their mode of expression. I was expecting jazzed-up powerpoint presentations. 

Boy, was I wrong. 

The presentations ranged from spoken word poetry, skits, singing and exquisitely masterful rapping that brought the room to sway and chahoo to the beats and rhymes. I was absolutely blown away by their depth, creativity and incredible capacity to translate what they learned into modalities they felt empowered in.

It reminded me again of the transformative power of pedagogies that foster students’ own strengths rather than streamlined assessments that render understanding of ideas only to expressions in academic writing. The spark and joy in their engagement with learning was a rare-sighting in my three years of teaching the conventional lecture-tutorial-essay format. 

 

As academics in institutions we tend to believe we can only stick to what has always been done in terms of how we foster and assess learning. Being a small part of this workshop gave me a new sense of hope and courage that we can do so much more for our students if we are willing to step up to the task of challenging traditional modes of teaching and learning.

So, how does this all relate to writing?

Writing is only one of the ways in which we can demonstrate engagement with critical ideas. Some do it through art, music, plays, films, dance and some do it through writing. It happens that a particular form of writing, namely academic writing, is the mode in which we are assessed, graded and tested upon. It is a particular skill that we are required to master to be able to be acknowledged as 'good' students under a particular pedagogy.  

My point is that just because writing is not the skill you are most brushed up in, it does not mean that you are not capable of thinking critically and making meaningful impact in society. No one is just good at writing, it takes practice. And it is okay if it is not your cup of tea. That's why I am writing this, so as to offer some tips that I have tried and tested to make writing my art.

 

While you work on writing, if that is the endeavour you have chosen to take up (not that many students really have a choice but to engage in writing), I encourage you to put in just as much time and love into your form of art. The kind of expression that feels the most authentic to you, the one that brings you joy and fulfilment. It is just as legitimate and valuable as what is formally and conventionally recognised as 'academic work'. Don't abandon your art, hold on to your spark. Engage in joy, make time for joy and be present to feel joy. Do not let the big man jade you in despair of the lies of who you are. You are more than what can ever be expressed in words. 

Okay, enough preaching. What you came for are writing tips. Here they are. 

1. Write a to-do list

This is something I do when I take on any writing project to make sure I meet all the requirements and to be able to sense a level of gratification as I tick off each box. It is also a good way to visualise and quantify the writing process, which can be daunting and mountainous when we first start writing. Here is a version I put together for my SOCIOL 101/G students for their essay. I hope serves as a helpful starting point. 

​2. Go for walks

 

Go for walks to digest your ideas. This is something that the wonderful Rachel Simon-Kumar reminded me while I was finishing off my masters thesis and it has served me so well. Moving your body and getting fresh air has been when I have had my most profound moments of clarity. I see this as a fundamental part of the writing process, sitting on your laptop is only a portion of the work. 

3. Stay hydrated

 

It is really hard for your brain to function when you are hyped on caffeine and dehydrated. 

4. Sit in the sun

 

You are human and need vitamin D.

5. Eat three meals a day at regular times

 

Keeping your body fed minimises the stress you experience and acts as fuel (because your brain needs fuel for thinking!)

6. Get your  7-8 hours of sleep

 

The brain processes so much while you rest. This is absolutely crucial for any kind of thinking, processing and creating. 

7. Chat to your friends

Get together with your course peers, or even to friends or family, and try to talk through your ideas. Most of the time when I am sitting with you in office hours, this is all I am doing - listening to you organise your ideas yourself as you talk me through them. 

8. Breathe

 

In moments of anxiety and panic, take three deep breaths. The essay you are writing is not the end all be all. This is only a small part of an ongoing journey of learning for you. What is on paper will only be a reflection of your thinking in that particular moment. The grade you get for the essay does not define you, you are much more than that. 

 

9. Clock out

This is a tip I received from my dear friend, activist, thinker and über cool bike trickster, Cameron Lawrence. Set a time in which you 'clock out' of being on your laptop. You might still be thinking about ideas for the essay, and even if you are not consciously doing it, it is likely you are doing in subconsciously. I usually tap out of my responsibilities around 5pm (though not always. If I ritualised all these tips I imagine I would be a lot more at peace. One day at a time!) and watch something on Netflix, go for walk, video call my a friend or family. There is no right way to do this, do whatever that will help you relax and recharge. 

10. Remember you are in charge

You are in charge of this essay and ultimately it is all down to you. Take responsibility for the learning you have committed to take on with this course, you are more capable than you think in your darkest hours. You can only do what you can and that is perfectly fine. The most important thing is that you submit on time, rather than submitting your best work. A submitted essay is better than an in-complete, potentially amazing, ground-breaking essay that you could write if you just had some more time, essay. We cannot grade you on potential, only what gets submitted on time. Done is better than perfect. 

 

Writing is inherently a very difficult task and the overwhelm you feel is very normal (and if you are not feeling overwhelmed, that's great too!). Being a perfectionist myself, the following approach has been useful:

  • Write the worst version of an essay you can think of (aiming for a C-, 50%): this usually takes the pressure off of writing the most perfect essay and allows you to write more freely. 

  • Step 2, edit the 'shit' essay to a B-grade essay. The guidelines for what constitutes each grade is included in the essay checklist. 

  • Step 3, further restructure, embellish, refine to get this to the standard of an A grade.

  • Step 4, let the essay go when you think it is 'good enough', not perfect. It will never be perfect because your thinking is always evolving. It is more important that you get it done rather than have it be perfect. Once again, Done is better than perfect. 

The writing process is never a straight line. Here are some images I found on the inter-web that captures what it actually feels and looks like in reality:

 

 

 

or like this:

    

 

 

or this:

 

 

or sometimes like this:

    

 

When I am feeling like I am the only person in the world who struggles with the writing process, I always return to this photo thread of Miyazaki's creative process which really very accurately captures the mood during writing and helps me feel less alone. 

It is all supposed to feel like a bit of whirlwind and chaos but you will get there. Have faith in yourself, trust your instincts and be kind and nurturing to yourself. 

 

All the best and sending you my warmest, crème de la crème, super-charged writing magic juju - I am rooting for you!

 

Erica 

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