So far in my posts about second language writing, I have focused on topics about teaching writing to language learners. As writing teachers, however, we owe it ourselves and our students to be writers as well as teachers of writing, so this month, I would like to share some of my experiences as a writer.
Writing for Personal Reasons
As much as I loved reading throughout school, I was not an avid writer. I thought about writing in a journal, but rarely did more than a day or two if it wasn’t a school assignment. I did not put in the effort required to take something from thought to publishable text. I didn’t have clever ideas for writing stories, and while I was good at writing reports, they tended to be functional and boring rather than something I would share with anyone besides my teachers.
When I was in the Peace Corps, I got into a relatively regular journal-writing habit and realized that I had a lot of experiences other people might find interesting. Not long after I returned home, I signed up for a weekend-long writing course through University of California, Santa Cruz Extension. In that class, I learned about narrative nonfiction, a genre I had not realized existed. Here at last was a form of writing I could do—I had already had exciting adventures, so I didn’t need to rely on my imagination, and people genuinely wanted to know about places I had gone and people I had met, so I had a real audience.
The other outcome of taking this class was that I met a group of women who were also interested in continuing to write and developing their writing. We started meeting up monthly to share writing and provide feedback. As we gained confidence in our writing abilities, we encouraged each other to revise the stories we wrote and to submit them for publication (in literary journals, local newspapers, and edited books), and after a few years, we decided to self-publish our own anthology. During this time, I was teaching writing and recognized the connections between the processes I was teaching and those I was experiencing with my writing group.
Writing Groups for Motivation
After 6 years of teaching college-level writing, I decided to return to graduate school and pursue a PhD. Although I wrote successfully throughout college and my master’s degree, I had still not had the experience of writing for an academic audience beyond my professors or for any purpose beyond a course term paper. In my doctoral program, I was expected to see course papers as stepping stones to my dissertation research and published journal articles.
With writing as the primary means of demonstrating my accomplishment of program goals, I needed to find a way to keep going, day in and day out. I read dozens of books about doing academic writing and realized that they all boiled down to the same message: Schedule a little bit of writing every day rather than putting it off until you have a large block of open time. This is where my next writing group became essential.
I joined a group of about five fellow graduate students for regular writing sessions at a café where we could set up at several tables, plug in our laptops, and write. Because we were working on widely differing projects, we rarely shared our work with each other. The main purpose of the group was motivation and companionship while doing an essentially isolating task, generating text. We would set a timer and swear to do nothing but write during that time. After the end of the session, then we could talk to each other or check email. Simply knowing that other people were writing at the same time kept me going much longer than I would have pushed myself on my own.
Writing for Publication: Getting Feedback
Although my writing group kept me going and motivated, as I progressed in my graduate program, I also needed focused feedback on my writing. This is where another small group proved valuable. We met at a conference and realized that we were all in the same stage of our graduate programs. Even though we lived across the country from each other, we used the internet and conference calls to meet weekly. Each week, one writer sent out a draft dissertation chapter or research article for the other members to read. When we met on the phone, we provided feedback on whatever the writer had asked for (sometimes it was with reporting data, sometimes it was organizing, and at other times it was with cutting words).
Thanks to this group, I finished my dissertation and have published many journal articles and a book. A few members have left and others have joined, but we continue to meet every other week for productive feedback and moral support. I still struggle to make myself sit down and write, but when I know that my writing group will be reading my work and helping me with what I find difficult, I feel inspired to keep plugging away.
Online Resources for Inspiration and Tracking Your Writing
Not all writers have the fortune to be in a place with fellow writers who want to meet up for writing sessions, and not all writers have access to others who are similarly interested in providing each other with feedback, so I want to finish this post with some recommendations for online resources that can replicate what I have found most useful.
The first is a resource that has a subscription cost, but I have found it worth the investment. Academic Muse is a multifunctional site that brings together coaching and peer support to keep you going with your writing projects. There is a vast resource library of advice for doing academic writing, a daily progress chart, and (my favorite) a chat room where other writers can sign in to conduct timed writing sessions. Even though I don’t know the other people or even where they are, just knowing that we are all writing keeps me going. If you sign in around the same time each day, you get to know the regulars.
If, like me, you struggle with motivating yourself to keep writing, check out the sites and apps recommended in the article “15 Productivity Apps to Help Keep Your Writing Goals on Track.” In addition to apps that time your writing sessions or stop you from checking email, the author also recommends a motivational site called Write Or Die. In this app, you set a timer for how long your writing session will be and then type your text into the text box on the site. The catch? If you stop typing, the app will apply consequences (of your choosing), ranging from an annoying alarm to actually deleting your text. This site works well if you are motivated by fear. If you prefer a positive motivator instead, check out Written?Kitten! Like Write Or Die, Written?Kitten! offers a text box where you type your work. Instead of a punishment for not writing, however, here you get a reward for every 100 words you type: a photo of a cute kitten (or puppy or bunny, if you find those more inspiring).
I hope my stories have inspired you to keep going with your own writing. Keep in mind that your TESOL affiliate or interest section newsletter would be a great place to share ideas for teaching or your experiences in the field. Let us know in the comments post what you’re doing to stay motivated!