Monday, September 1, 2014

Sue Ellen Henry: “I need to believe that my reader wants me to succeed.”

Sue Ellen Henry, Associate Professor of Education and Director of Bucknell's Teaching and Learning Center

What writing project(s) are you working on right now?
I finished a book manuscript over the summer, and now I’m analyzing some data and writing a journal article based upon this data. I’ve also spent a good bit of time re-writing my syllabus for a course I’ve taught for the past decade, which is a very different sort of project.

What do you love about it?
All three of these projects have an openness to them. While writing them, I didn’t actually know how they would turn out until I had a draft. Then, I reflected on the draft and asked myself some questions: what am I pleased with in this draft? What does this draft not quite do yet for my anticipated audience? What haven’t I discussed that my audience will need to know? In the writing process, until send it to the editor, put it on the photocopier, or post it to Moodle, it’s still a work in progress. The promise that revision can make a piece of writing more clear, more eloquent, more efficient – more beautiful – is there until you submit it as your “final” version.

What about it (if anything) is driving you nuts?
Well, of course all this openness means that you can tear yourself up inside revising. I learned this idea that writing was revising very late in life as a graduate student in my masters program. I was failing at writing. I’m not exaggerating here. Everything I turned in came back with my favorite professor’s characteristic “Ugh!” in the margins. I was struggling and couldn’t figure it out. Then I enrolled in a writing workshop, which altered my thinking about what writing was. Prior to this workshop I thought that a paper for a class was a document that I produced after I had read and thought about the topic in absence of writing. Instead, the workshop advanced the idea that rather than something one did at the end of some other thought process, writing itself was the (thought) process—and the means of this process was called rewriting. Our instructor, in an introductory set of remarks, held up Moby Dick in front of him and said, “One thing all of you should recognize is that this book, as famous as it is, could be rewritten today and it could be better than it is right now. This does not mean that it shouldn’t be a classic in its current form, only that a commitment to rewriting is essential to the creation of any classic, to anyone’s best writing.” The thought that Moby Dick could be rewritten was astounding to me. Now I understand that at any particular moment when I seek to do my best writing, sometime later I will be able to improve on the previous session’s writing. This improvement comes about because by writing the first draft, I discover more about what I know (and what I don’t yet understand) and can then attempt to communicate it more clearly in subsequent drafts.  As E.M. Forster is credited with saying: “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?”

Does this drive me nuts? Sure. Does it make me feel more in control of the process? Absolutely.

How would you describe your writing process?
I tend to think first about the big sections and the organization of these sections, relative to the audience I’ve imagined for the writing piece. I often make a diagram or outline the major chunks, trying to get a sense for the arc or arrangement of the argument. I then think about what kinds of evidence I’ll need to reach my audience and support this organizational structure. In general, I start writing by thinking through and making notes about the expository elements of writing: audience, purpose, organization and evidence.

It’s also probably obvious that I start early with diagraming and note-taking, giving myself substantial time for revision. Rushed work = crumby work, in my experience. I almost always re-read rushed work and see organizational or sentence-level problems that would be easy to fix.

What kind of feedback on your writing do you find most helpful?
I need to believe that my reader wants me to succeed.

I can take nearly any sort of negative feedback on my writing if it is framed in a constructive manner. In graduate school, I once had a reviewer say to me, “I am intrigued by your argument, but I just can’t do anything with your writing.” This feedback paralyzed me. Also in graduate school, my academic adviser would often rewrite in his own words the first 4-5 pages of a draft of mine followed by an ellipse with the marginal comment, “more like this.” This was also not helpful. Helpful feedback frames the critical comments from the reader’s point of view. For example, noting something like, “I was confused at paragraph 5 because in paragraphs 1-4 I thought you were advancing argument X, but in paragraph 5 you seem to use evidence that would support argument Y.” In essence, I need feedback to be framed as a conversation with my document, so that I see the reader’s perspective, which by definition directs my future work as the author to reach that reader with my words.

What would you like students to know about you as a writer?

I continue to struggle with writing, but with practice I am becoming better able to imagine what my audience will need to understand my arguments clearly. Three central questions: 1) Who is my reader? 2) What is the purpose of this piece? and, 3) What does the reader need to achieve this purpose? are useful for any piece of writing, be it a short email or a book-length manuscript. I use these questions as a check on all my official writing. Asking these questions tells me I am a writer.

Find out more about Sue Ellen's work as a writer and as a teacher.

No comments:

Post a Comment