To Thine Own Style Be True
Monday, October 17, 2011 Expert Advice
By Kayla Skarbakka, Writing Tutor
When I was a sophomore in college, I took an expository writing class from one of the star professors in my school’s English department. He was one of those grizzled men with bushy beards and patched suitcoats who live on coffee and cynicism. I was desperate to impress him.
When he assigned the course’s first major paper, he told my class that he wanted us to draw an outline. Not write it—draw it. I had no idea what he meant, and the outline I presented to him was a mess of random thoughts, arrows, and geometric shapes.
“Kayla, I don’t understand where you’re going,” he said.
“Well, I do,” I lied. I figured the tangles of thought in my outline would work their way out in the actual draft. They didn’t. The paper was a disaster. And if I had had just a bit more perspective, just a bit more confidence, I might have understood why.
That professor, to his credit, was trying to get us to free our minds and think outside the scope of the traditional outline: Roman numeral point I, subpoint A, subpoint B. How linear. How boring.
The only problem? That’s how I think—at least in a scholarly setting. That’s how I plan my academic writing. Without a clear, preplanned structure, my mind is a mess of—well, of random thoughts, arrows, and geometric shapes. Once I develop my paper’s argument and understand the basic progression of ideas, I don’t need to start with the introduction; in fact, rarely do I start writing on page 1. But I certainly need to plan that way. My paper failed not because my ideas were poor, but because I surrendered my instincts under the assumption that surely my professor knew best.
It may seem like a cop-out, but nobody—not I, not your instructor, not that mean old middle school English teacher who still haunts you—nobody but you can prescribe your own personal writing process. Maybe, like me, you like to write from ordered lists, engineering your ideas into a logical progression before you type your first word. Maybe you’re one of those freewheeling types who just write and write and write, composing a large body of text that you can then chip away at and sculpt into a cohesive paper. Maybe you prefer a combination approach. Maybe you even like to draw your outlines. The point is, there is a process that works for you. You just have to find it.
If you’ve already established a preferred writing strategy, fantastic! Go with it! If you haven’t, now is the time to experiment. Try writing a linear outline. Too constricting? Try some freewriting. What most interests you about your topic? What troubles you about it? What themes do you see emerging in your writing, and how can you organize them in a logical way?
There’s no best practice when it comes to writing, but there is, most likely, a best practice for you. And it’s up to you to find it.