The Writing Center recently had the opportunity to discuss student writing with Assistant Professor of English Matthew Kaiser. This spring, Professor Kaiser teaches the very popular English 156: Crime and Horror in Victorian Literature as well as the seminar English 90tv: Adventures with Robert Louis Stevenson. Below is a transcript of our conversation.
Q: What is the most common mistake you see in student writing?
Professor Kaiser (K): I would say that there are several mistakes that students make. The biggest mistake is not a technical one, or even an experience one, something that beginning writers make more often than advanced writers. I think it’s more of a temperamental mistake, and that is, I think a lot of students think of writing as a form of self-expression – and it’s not. It’s more a form of communication. And writing – good writing, at any rate – should be aimed at an audience. The audience should be the primary concern of the writer. The point of the writing is not to tap into the truth of the writer him or herself, and to find some sort of inner sense of intellectual satisfaction that is put in words – it’s actually totally aimed at convincing someone else to change his or her view, and is as a result a service that is aimed at another person. I think when people get stuck in their own heads and they see writing as, you know, about exploring their own psyches and trying to figure out what they themselves really think – that’s where they start to feel locked in, claustrophobic and trapped in their own brains. And so it’s actually a, sort of, selfless temperament, I think – a temperament that is expansive and outward, that results in the best kind of writing.
Q: Related to that, what is one thing you wish to see students do more often in their writing?
K: In terms of how they might go about writing for an audience?
K: Well, one exercise I have my students do to help them get outside their own heads and to think of writing as a service that you do for an audience, for someone else, to put the audience before themselves, and their own, sort of, needs to self-express, is I have all my students – and this is an exercise I do in my small seminars – I have all my students write down on a little piece of paper the argument that they’re planning on making in their first paper – you know, the general thesis that they’re planning on sticking with. And, they write it down on a little piece of paper. I tell them to fold up the pieces of paper and put it in a bowl, and then I pass the bowl around and I ask everyone to pick out a piece of paper. They pick it out, and I tell them, “That’s your new thesis.” So, they’re stuck with someone else’s thesis. And, as a result, they have no ego invested whatsoever in that idea; instead, their goal is to serve that idea, and to convince an audience as best they can that that is the right approach to the text or to the assignment question, even if they themselves don’t believe it. And it actually results in some fantastic papers, even though everyone is scared and nervous at first when they receive this foreign thesis, which they’re forced to believe themselves. And it’s great – it actually prepares them for thinking outside their own heads. Essentially, the glory of writing the paper results in doing justice by someone else’s idea instead of one’s own idea. I think it frees students.
So my advice for students who are struggling to come up with a thesis is to put some distance between themselves and the paper. If they feel bold enough, one thing they could do is to argue the exact opposite of what they think the case is, almost as a debater might in a debating exercise. There’s a, sort of, ironic distance that gives you from the ideas, from the text, that is actually an intellectual distance, and an invaluable critical distance, so you can, sort of, force yourself to do that kind of exercise by making arguments that you don’t necessarily believe for the sake of trying to convince an audience.
Q: That’s a very interesting suggestion. We try to in the Writing Center have the tutor articulate the opposite of an argument as a test to see if the student’s actually making an argument, and I think it’s an interesting suggestion to encourage the student to actually argue the opposite as well.
K: Especially if the students are planning to go to law school, or go into advertising; that’s what they’re going to be spending their lives doing – making cases that they don’t necessarily believe in themselves. Because that’s what writing is – it’s rhetoric. It’s the use of language in order to trigger a certain response in a reader. And oftentimes, students don’t even think about their readers. Painful writing is writing that is audience-less.
Q: In the Writing Center we’ve had discussions about how professors have complained to us that they want students to make more original and risky arguments – that students are making arguments that are too safe for the topic – but a lot of the students that come to us feel that these risks don’t often pay off if they try to go a little bit beyond what might be the safe argument. Is there a suggestion you have for a student who might be trying to make a more risky argument or a more original argument to mitigate that risk?
K: Well, that’s a good question. I suppose the best way to avoid making a risky argument that collapses on you is to be incredibly precise about providing evidence. I think the riskier arguments, when they don’t work, are the arguments that fail to provide evidence in support of the risky claims. The risky claims are actually quite exciting to read about. You’re very invested in the student’s counterintuitive impulses. You admire the student for saying something that is superficially or at first blush outrageous or bracingly counterintuitive. But what ends up happening page two, page three, the student isn’t proving the point. It’s sort of risk for the sake of risk. So I would encourage the student to spend time plotting out exactly how that risky argument is going to be made with textual evidence. Textual evidence is something that is not super exciting, from a writer’s perspective, to gather and to plan for, but if you’re making a risky argument, it actually makes the act of finding textual evidence more interesting. That would be my suggestion. When I see student papers that say something that seems outrageous, but which, you’re rooting for as a reader because it’s exciting, I always feel frustrated when the student isn’t able to provide a certain amount of comfort, analytical comfort, in the form of substantiation, by the end.
Q: I’m going to go a little Oprah here on you, but what was your “aha moment” for your own writing?
K: When I realized how writing works, in other words?
K: Well, I think all of us are still trying to figure out writing, since it’s organic and alive, so I don’t think any of us have figured it out totally – that’s why we keep writing is to try to get better and improve. But for me, I suppose, a paradigm-shifting moment in my own writing career occurred – I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when this occurred, but it was a shift in psychology – and I realized, not only, that writing is about the audience, as I mentioned before, not about me, and so stepping outside my own brain was one of the means by which I had that, kind of, “aha moment.” But more importantly, I think, I realized that writing is three dimensional – the composition process, that is, is a three dimensional process. It’s like sculpting. It’s not like running a race. It’s not like moving from point A to point B on a piece of paper, you know, a line between two points. It’s more like sculpting something that requires you to walk around it. There’ s no beginning; there’s no end. You don’t write in a straight line. You don’t write from beginning to end. You write almost like you’re putting a puzzle together, a jigsaw puzzle on the table, you know, one piece here, one piece there. You go from paragraph to paragraph. You erase; you take pieces out. It takes a long time. But once you approach it holistically, an essay like that, and you realize that the momentum of the paper, the linearity, the forward movement, is an illusion that is created, and is not actually, you know, a path that you’re following as a writer. It’s a path you create for a reader, in the same way that if you’re designing a city park, you design the city park from afar, thinking about every angle where the trees are and where the ponds are, where the little, you know, groves are. And of course you place paths throughout the park. But the paths are not the thing from which you design the park; it’s something you add afterwards. Once you realize that, I think writing becomes a completely different creature. It becomes a different experience – a different kind of psychology. It takes a long time to do that, but it’s much more satisfying, and you feel like you’re in control of it. You realize that language and sentences are living things – they’re limber, they’re flexible, they’re endlessly malleable. Language is something that serves you as the designer. It’s not something that we serve, slavishly.
Q: My last question is, do you have any book recommendations on writing in particular that you think would help students who are looking to improve their writing in general?
K: Well, I think the best way to become a good writer is actually not to read how-to manuals about how to write, but instead to read good writing. Read literature, even if the literature is fantastical in nature – it’s not the analytical writing that students are trying to learn how to do, you know, instead, it’s a play or it’s poetry, or a novel – still read it. Because those people are people who are professional manipulators of audiences – they know how to use words in order to create emotional and intellectual effects in the brain of a reader. And so just read good writing, as much as you can, any kind of good writing. That’s my advice.