Working with Faculty Writers

January 12, 2016

"No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft." --H.G. Wells

Dr. Mary Reichardt, Coordinator of Professional Writing Services for the Center for Faculty Development.I'll admit that I have this passion. For someone who loves words and sentences and the ideas behind them it's all too tempting to want to tinker with someone else's writing. And some faculty, like some students, are happy to have you do it: just fix it! they cry. But writing resists efforts to rush it or mechanize it or provide a quick fix. Good writing is an art, inseparable from the skills, personality, and spirit of the writer. One alters another’s draft at great peril.

How then do we give feedback to writers that is both useful and respectful? First, remember that the writer is the expert in content—the facts or ideas or thoughts waiting to be expressed. In my writing consultations with faculty, I start by asking questions that clarify content: what it is about? who is the audience? what are you trying to express? why is this point important? In the vast majority of instances I find that faculty can articulate their ideas much better than write them. We are, after all, teachers, used to conveying complex material orally to a wide range of student learners. Plenty of research has shown a strong correlation between speaking an idea and writing it. That’s the reason behind the writing workshops we conduct in class. That’s the reason writing coaches like myself don’t merely edit writing in a vacuum but work with writers face to face. Faculty typically write in isolation. And that’s the trouble! In my experience as a writing teacher and coach, the single most important step to effective writing is first speaking the ideas and/or reading the draft out loud. It is not just about getting feedback from listeners. It is also about hearing yourself formulate your ideas so that you can then write them down as simply and naturally as you spoke them.

I do a lot of multitasking in my initial consultation with faculty writers. Even while asking questions I’m skimming the draft and making mental notes on several levels, from the broadest (audience, tone, logic, organization) to the most minute (sentence structure, citations, grammar, punctuation). Since all stages of the writing process are best done in regular, short, focused sessions, I typically suggest a process of “divide and conquer,” starting with the large issues and moving to the small. Depending on the writer’s needs, we might accomplish the work in one session or several sessions.

What’s more, there’s nearly always some tension to be diffused. Why is it that we busy professionals, so accustomed to consulting other professionals for our needs, fear asking for help with writing? Since writing is so close to the bone, do we worry about being judged? Do the memories of returned school papers bleeding red marks still inspire dread? In The Subversive Copy Editor, Carol Saller, the sagacious long-time editor at the University of Chicago Press, focuses on the delicate dance between writer and editor (or writing coach). She urges both parties to think of the process as primarily one of negotiation. Yes, there are grammar, punctuation, and stylistic errors that must be fixed. However, the vast majority of the feedback I offer faculty writers is negotiable. Suggestions to enhance readability, eliminate jargon, reorder paragraphs, or rephrase sentences are provisional; everything can be discussed. There is rarely just one way of saying something. And negotiation, like writing itself, is an art: a give-and-take exchange to which both parties contribute their expertise. It inevitably results in a more effective piece of writing. 

To schedule a writing consultation for help with any of your professional writing projects—articles, book chapters, grants, tenure or promotion materials — feel free to email Dr. Reichardt.