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Ron Cooley, English Faculty

Writing Process

What is the writing process like for you as a Professor?

I'm a very fidgety writer. I can't sit and blast something out. Usually I'll try to select my evidence and figure out what sequence I want to present the evidence in, and that's basically what one does when one puts together an outline. Then it becomes a matter of building the commentary around a piece of evidence, and once you've got that kind of sequence, you understand what the stages in your argument are [which] it frees you in a way to get up and walk around and think about this part of the paper or that part of the paper. You don't have to hold the whole thing in your head, and if you don't write an outline, and you don't have a sense of the sequence of evidence that you want to present, then what happens is you have to hold the whole thing in your head which means you have to sit and stare at your screen until you get the thing done. So, for me, partly because I'm a fidgety writer, and because I like to get up and either think about some other things or let the question rattle around in the back of my mind while I'm maybe washing the dishes or focusing on something else, it means that I have to have a good structure laid out in advance, so I can be working on the sub-problems: "how am I going to express this?"; "how am I going to communicate that?"; "I'm not sure the reader will buy that although it seems right to me"; "what kind of persuasion can I use to make the reader see it my way?". Those are things that I often work out when I'm not writing, when I'm walking back and forth to work, or I'm doing some sort of other mundane household task, I'm chipping away at those problems in the back of my mind. Writing is an agonizing process. It never stops being agonizing: when it's not just an exercise, when you're writing because you need to communicate something, whether professionally in your job situation, or to your scholarly colleagues if you're an expert in a field, and you think you've made an important discovery that you want to communicate to them. It only gets more painful when the stakes get higher. It's the thing that makes the student experience and the professor's experience really the same kind of experience: ...we're all judged on our writing.