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I'm Not a Good Writer

Students preface our meetings together with this statement, and it spills out with an involuntary ease. It sounds almost like an admission, a clarifying element she feels compelled to offer as she hands me her English essay draft to look over, or an emphatic defense he lines up before he lets me read his Common App supplement. Like the other favorite, “I am bad at math,” this apologetic outburst is likely symptomatic of a story the student has been telling himself for a long time: I am not good at this thing; I will never be good at this thing; it’s just not my thing.

The truth is, we all don these caveat-cloaks when confronted by the daunting or the unfamiliar. Why? When there’s a possibility of failure, we feel vulnerable, and vulnerability is not particularly comfortable. “I’ve never made this before, so I’m sorry if it’s a little dry,” we say as we serve a new dish to our friends, or “forgive me, I’m new to this software” we mutter while readying a presentation before a waiting audience. In reality, the sucking-at-writing could have taken root in kindergarten when our now college-bound student wasn’t the first in the class to spell his name correctly; it could’ve been reinforced in 6th grade with a C on an in-class paragraph assignment; and it could’ve been cemented by harsh feedback on a Frankenstein creative exercise in high school.  What’s important to know—what I always tell my students—is that we can never excel at something we think we’re bad at. “I’m terrible at basketball,” I’ll offer, “but to be fair, I haven’t tried to be good at it since 7th grade when I didn’t make the team.” The most important quality in becoming a good writer is, in my opinion, knowing one thing empirically: writing is a skill, not an innate talent.

Though it may come more easily to some than others, like all skills, it can be honed with consistent practice, an open mind, and a commitment to improvement. The other truth? We don’t live in a writing-optional world (#email). It’s a skill we need—in some way or another—to function as an effective contributor to our global community. So how do we undo the suck-mentality? We write. And then we write. And then we write again. We write for fun about things that inspire us, we write for school about things that are perhaps less inspiring, we write to communicate our feelings or tell stories. The crucial ingredient? Revision. Chances are, unless you’re William Faulkner (According to legend, Faulkner wrote all of As I Lay Dying in “six weeks without changing a word.”), anything you write will take many drafts, lots of constructive comments, deletions and additions, and maybe even several audiences before you’re happy with it. J.K. Rowling wrote the opening chapter to Harry Potter fifteen times! Sound like a lot of work? Getting better at anything takes work, grit, and, most of all, a fearless willingness to dive head-first into the ice-cold waters of feedback, reflection, and adjustment. So, what can we do to strip ourselves of our “Hi My Name Is I Suck At Writing” name tags?

  1. Read. I know, I know—not what you wanted to hear, but exploring different writing styles and experiencing the power of good writing regularly is the best way to start developing your own voice as a writer. Read an impactful memoir, an interesting op-ed, or a persuasive speech; ask a family member to read the same one so you can use it as a platform for discussion. You can even write a response/reaction to what you read! Which leads me to…
  2. Write. Try working your way through the NYT’s 500 Prompts for Narrative or Personal Writing. Don’t worry about perfection: just get the words on the page. Give yourself 24 hours before sitting down to your writing again, then make some adjustments based on your re-read.
  3. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Then... it’s time to get brave: have a family member or close friend read your piece and offer you feedback. Even better, have her do the same prompt, then trade! Dialogue about the comments, discuss big takeaways, and ask questions. You may feel uneasy, but growth requires feeling the fear and doing it anyways. Get acclimated to this feeling of uneasiness: embrace the opportunity to hear your own inner critic alongside the feedback of others.
  4. Talk to your teacher. Let your teachers know that this is something you’re committed to, and let them offer you some resources or opportunities that they believe in.

I know what you’re thinking: how I can sit here and lecture you about bravery and practice and feedback when I haven’t played basketball since 7th grade? To be honest, it really just wasn’t my thing. Of course it’s OK if English, or math, or science, or art, or basketball is not your thing. We don’t all have to excel at everything: that’s the beauty of individuality (and college! Where you get to pick your major…). But we all can improve our writing if we’re willing to change our mindset. Like it or not, unlike our jumpshot, our writing is regularly shared with the world, and each of us has something truly great to share—we just need to give ourselves the opportunity to do so.