Do You Want to Write? What Learning Research Tells Us About Becoming a Professional Writer
For writers starting out, it seems there are big secrets to becoming a professional writer evidenced by books that profess to convey these secrets in150 or so pages — just read the blurbs on their backs. Nearby are MFA programs that claim they to grind the grain of intent into the flour of literature — in a short year or two.
If something seems odd in this scenario you’re right in thinking so. Consider this how-to-write books and writing programs are a relatively recent phenomena. Most professional writers, I argue, were serious committed writers, before reading how-to-write books or going to a MFA program. Does this information put MFA writing programs into the light of credentialing more than writing? Yes, to a point it does. Does it make us suspicious about the efficacy of such books? Yes, to a point.
If you have not read Fanny Burney get out there and find a copy of her great novel Evelina. Burney began writing at the age of ten, doing what she called “scribblings.” She burned most of her work before she was age 16 including her first full length novel evidently because it wasn’t appropriate for a young woman to write. In 1778 her first novel Evelina was published anonymously and it was the hit of London. Imagine sitting at dinner parties, as she did, and hearing people rave about your book but not acknowledging you wrote it. The point here is that Burney didn’t read books on writing, she wrote. She didn’t try to locate education about how to write, if such a thing existed then, she wrote. She didn’t try to write, she wrote.
Pedagogical research has taught us one important lesson as follows: Learning is best when it is authentic and such learning generally consists of the following:
- One brings in oneself; one’s voice is honored.
- Activities encompass the entirety of the problem or situation, often in a toy form, yet products are creative, tangible, and authentic.
- It is often done independently.
- There is a pathway outlined as: Doing — — Reflection — — Growth. In other words the activity is value laden, values are applied in the process of reflecting.
- Activities are situated within authentic contexts and interests.
- Sustained inquiry is promoted, projects most often require significant time commitment.(1)
Taken as a list, authentic learning aspects might equally describe writing.
Writers choose subjects and forms that align with their interests. Writers work to develop their personal voices in the writing. Writers often write alone. Writers reflect upon what they do and from that reflection they identify strengths and weaknesses; from this they revise and grow. The doing promotes sustained inquiry, some by the nature of the form, one generally can’t write a novel in a week.
I’ve refrained from mentioning one aspect out on purpose because this is exactly the subject I want to hammer home. Here it is:
Activities should, and I use the imperative deliberately, be authentic attempts at real forms. Outcomes should be stories, or novels, or poems, even if they are what philosophers call toy models, meaning the entire range of deep problems inherent in the creative activity are engaged.
This leads to the number one thing one must do if to be a professional writer. By “professional” I mean serious, engaging in and conforming to the standards of the highest level of practice. I do not mean professional to infer earning money.
You must write as though you are already a professional writer.
This means, for example if you are writing a short story you sit down and write a short story. You don’t attempt to write one, you write one. You don’t think about writing one, you write one.
All the questions — whether to use a pencil or pen, handwritten or computer, whether to start in the middle or at the end, whether to write linearly or to jump around — are irrelevant to or at least subservient to this goal.
You write a short story so that when you are done it’s a short story, in a form that you consider to be a short story. It doesn’t have to be long. Nor will it be perfect. A toy model does not solve every problem, this is why it’s a toy model, but it does have to fulfill most of the initial requirements, and in this it is an authentic try.
Note: If you’re only compiling notes, or just researching, or starting a hundred times, you’re not fulfilling the number one thing you must do, which is to write a short story.
Ok, you’ve done it.
What do you do next?
You write another, because you are now a professional writer and this is what professional writers do.
What makes you serious and professional? Doing it again. And again.
This is called sustained inquiry. The doing never ends and this is why it is so critically important that you:
- Choose a topic and style of interest and
- Do not judge outputs early in the game.
It seems a bit obvious to state that the number one rule is to write. Yet so many want to get there, there being being a writer. I read it in forums and I hear it in classes, I hear it from people I meet at events and book signings. I hear all sorts of intentions about writing and I hear about stuff people do to prepare for or avoid writing. They do everything it seems…except write.
Authentic learning suggests that if one wants to do the best thing possible to become a writer that one neither plays at writing nor considers writing to be a class project. Instead, one treats writing as real world involvement in doing exactly what serious out of school writers do on a daily basis.
For a second think about this, you’re a teacher and you have a place in your program for only one more student. Student A tells you how they try a lot, they have starts of stories, they love literature and reading and they dream of being a famous writer. Student B tells you they write all the time and they’ve already written twenty short stories and three novels, all unpublished. They don’t know what they want from writing but they know they need to write. I see the choice as obvious. It’s easier to get someone who is already doing to broaden their horizons than it is get someone not doing to start doing.
As you continue writing you’ll run into higher level problems. You might reach a point where you want to read something on short story endings, yep there’s a book exactly on this issue out there. You might want to understand what makes Henry James’ style so brilliant, there is a book on this too. You’ll seek out information on techniques and analysis as you need it. But you’re still writing, daily, ongoing, in a sustained way. In other words, you’re a writer.
A Bit More Theory for Consideration
In their article titled Research in Purpose and Value for the Study of Technology in Secondary Schools: A Theory of Authentic Learning, Ann Marie Hill and Howard A. Smith propose four qualities of authentic learning that came out of their research. (2) [The following page numbers are from this article]. I suspect the qualities’ terms can change depending on the author examined, but I’ll accept them as useful for emphasizing particular discussion points, and as they say, it sets up what they call a “hermeneutic unit.” (3)
All learning is mediated, a view stems from “learning emphasizes the need for learner to engage in authentic cultural tasks using relevant cultural tools.” (p. 23) Writers do this, we write within a framework of writing, of literature, or as the authors say, “historical and material conditions” (p. 23) and our knowledge of this plays a role in what we do.
We’re concerned here with but the mind that “embraces cognitive, emotional, physical, and social conditions.” (p. 23). Our embodiment normally enters the work in a subconscious manner however, to make this explicit is often useful as we gain a better awareness of our our intention and our stance.
The authors state that traditional learning often focuses on the individual and the private mind, which is certainly a part of writing. Distributed learning “recognizes explicitly that many tasks cannot be completed by one person working alone.” (p. 23). I suggest that considering oneself as a serious writer, and situating oneself within a network of other serious writers brings with it, or should, a continual going outside ourselves to other works of writing. This seeking comprised of comparison, appreciation, and reflexivity does not allow our writing to sit in some hermetically sealed bubble.
It is learning in context. The authors write, “various studies have shown consistently just how situation-specific most knowledge is and just how little transfer takes place automatically.” (p. 24). This is the main reason I say that in order to write, we must write as though we are a serious writer. In situating oneself as a serious writer one grapples with all the accompanying duties, problems, and rewards this entails.
The authors also presented a nice visual, their hermeneutic unit, that maps results of interviews, and shows paths of meaning within authentic learning, and although they say this is a preliminary analysis it’s very interesting.
Their hermeneutic unit represents for us something else we sort of know. We, our identity, is central in the writing process. It is a position from which we cast our thoughts and intentions to other arenas, in a non linear, interconnected manner.
Authentic learning in writing is a framework that allows for the construction of knowledge, as opposed to performative actions, that maximizes one’s ability to be a writer via situated activity and intrinsic motivation. An even more powerful outcome of authentic learning is that by following the “rules” outlined in this article, one finds that soon, even sooner than one expected, one cannot distinguish what they do from what a professional writer does. In other words, one has almost magically arrived.
- There are a few more aspects but these relate more to the classroom environment and include collaborative activities and scaffolded learning.
- Hill, A., & Smith, H. (2005). Research in Purpose and Value for the Study of Technology in Secondary Schools: A Theory of Authentic Learning. International Journal of Technology & Design Education, 15(1), 19–32. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10798-004-6195-2
- The hermeneutic unit is a term that comes out of a workbench method found in ATLAS.ti software. It was originally used for textual analysis and it allows for the management of and visualization of quantitative data. The model allows for a sorting and connecting of categories much like we would see in grounded theory. One benefit is that the model allows a researcher to capture and easily focus on the concepts relevant to the particular project, which in turn can assist in uncovering previously hidden relationships within the previously unstructured data.