Professors Share Insights On Writing

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On Tuesday, National Writing Day, the Writing Associates Program sponsored a faculty panel discussion called “Pieter Judson, Kathy Siwicki, & Phil Weinstein Discuss Their Personal Writing Processes.” Many students turned up at Upper Tarble for this rare opportunity to gain insight into their professors’ “approaches to the writing and revision process,” as the poster advertised.

The Writing Associates asked the professors to prepared a ten-minute discussion based on questions such as “how has your writing process changed?” “What is your favorite and least favorite part or type of writing?” “What did you wish you knew as an undergrad?” and “How do you use feedback and collaboration in the writing process?”

Judson, who is teaching “Sexuality and Society in Modern Europe” and “Modern Europe, 1890 to the Present: The Age of Democracy and Dictatorship” spoke about writing from a historian’s perspective. He was self-deprecating but wise as he spoke about writing books (“I hate writing books”), reviews, and the writing process, which he described as “tortured.”

To get started, “First, I have to eat everything in sight,” Judson said, to sympathetic laughter from the students. He described writing as “close to therapy,” because it forces you to “confront yourself in the deepest, most shameful places. The tenants of his process are “acceptance and vigilance” — you accept that you’ve done your best, at some point, yet you are vigilant about making your writing the best it can be: you are always self-critical. The more complex the topic, the more clear you have to be.

Siwicki, who is teaching “Learning and Memory” and Biology 001 this semester, spoke about writing scientific papers, grant proposals, grant reviews, articles, lab manuals and recommendations. She said each of these required its own style and mindset to write. Her favorite thing to write is grant proposals, a statement greeted with a kind of horrified laughter. Yet Siwicki insisted that it was the focused energy and drive that it took to get through the intensity of a proposal that excited her.

She insisted she was highly self-critical and tried to make “each sentence better.” She learned how to channel this perfectionism into peer revision in graduate school, where she met with her lab group to critique each other’s papers.

Siwicki admitted that she sometimes feels as though scientific writing stifles a student’s natural style and that writing in science was analogous to “reporting,” except for the interpretation of data in the discussion section of a paper.

Weinstein, who is teaching “Post-Colonial Encounters” and “Dostoevsky in America,” described drafts and revision as the “bread and butter of writing” and noted confidence as the most important thing for a writer to have. Confidence, Weinstein said, comes from knowing a text well and spending time reflecting on it, this will take your ideas out of the suburbs and into the center of town, as he put it. He also emphasized the importance of practice.

Weinstein insisted that an idea that is not written down is like a plane on a runway; it will not take off until it has been written. And once it has flown, it will be held up in the air. It’s the take off that’s the hard part. The pleasure of having written something great? “It’s as close as I’ll ever come to having a baby,” Weinstein said.
All three panelists stressed how different that process is now that students write using word processors. Pre-1985, they recalled, it was typewriters. “You will never know what it was like,” Weinstein said. Siwicki recalls writing her papers long hand on legal pads and literally cutting and pasting pieces back together on her bedroom floor. “I still write best when I have a pen in my hand,” Siwicki said. She keeps a hand-written notebook for research ideas.

The panelists all expressed appreciation for having this opportunity to reflect on their writing processes, something they didn’t often do or have time for. “It was very interesting to sit down to talk about those questions,” Judson said. Afterward, the students asked questions and all three panelists contributed their opinions and advice. It was an informative, yet personal session that left both the students and the speakers with insight into their writing processes.