Michelle Anya Anjirbag is a first year PhD student at the Children’s Literature Research Centre at the University of Cambridge researching fairy tale adaptations, especially those done by Disney. This life choice follows a stint in journalism – among other careers involving professional writing. Her prose, as noted in the photos (with permission from her supervisor) can still sometimes use a bit of work.
Maybe I’ve appropriated the above title from the Audemars Piguet trademark, but Pablo Picasso also said something similar – “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Both statements apply to the art and craft of writing, and perhaps especially academic writing, something I was reminded of through rounds of feedback as I really started to sink my teeth into the upgrade report.
While it is easy to become preoccupied with the research process, training to be an academic is not only about learning to do the research, but also about learning how to disseminate that research in a way that is approachable for and understandable by people who don’t necessarily share our direct areas of expertise. While it is absolutely overwhelming to swallow the criticism of something we are all trained to think of ourselves as experts in by nature of reaching higher education, if there is anything I learned from various professional writing jobs, it is that there is always a way to get better at what we do.
I remember the first time that a professor held me accountable for my writing. I had skated through high school and more than half of my undergraduate degree confident that I could just do what I wanted, write what I wanted and that it was good enough. It was my creative license to communicate my thoughts in my way. And then I was holding my first assignment from a nature writing class with a large “D” on the back page and red ink scrawled everywhere. The note accompanying the grade? “This is lazy and sloppy. You can do better”. It stung. It was right. I made a point of continuing to take that professor’s courses because I was pushed to improve my writing whether in analytical papers or expository writing assignments. It was far from the last time that someone critiqued my writing, but looking back I can recognize that about ten years ago I had a choice in how I could react to criticism. And to be frank, if I hadn’t been willing to learn then, to learn how to better evaluate my own writing and my habitual mistakes and my weaknesses, I probably wouldn’t be here at Cambridge today.
That course was far from the last time that someone red-penned my work. From the student newspaper to the last newspaper I worked at before Cambridge, to essays I get commissioned to write now, and open submissions, there is always an editor. There is always feedback. I remember being on a voting results deadline with an editor literally leaning over me and copy editing as I was writing by hand. I remember having opinion columns cut in half because I had managed to argue both sides of the point in a span of 800 words without realizing it. I have had work shredded. The trick was remembering it was never personal – it was my job to be clear, to write a certain way, to address certain audiences at certain times, and good editors were there to hold me to account.
Good supervisors and advisors can and do fill the role of that good editor. Their feedback is not only about who the research is being conducted and where else one might explore in terms of concepts, but also about how the writing is. From comments about too-long sentences to advice that one should maybe break up the text with different headings, to when and how technical and subject specific language is used correctly and necessarily, these are notes that make the PhD better, and teach us how to write for yet another different audience effectively. And to be honest, in every writing community I’ve belonged to, taking courses or attending workshops and retreats to better one’s writing – even from people with multiple books out or who frequently publish in top-tier journals and magazines – is normal. With this in mind, there is no reason why academic criticism specifically about one’s writing should rankle.
So, what do we do, when we see those hours of work reduced to red comments across the pages? How do we create the space to process this, and be able to take it as feedback on our work, not on ourselves? Personally, I read it, and I walk away from it. I let myself have my moment of processing if I need it. And then I sit back down at the computer with a separate notebook and make a list of what is being flagged as needing improvement in my writing. I track and see where I am actually processing the edits and getting control of my prose, and where I might actually need to ask for some more help. For example, currently, my challenge is working on my paragraphing; I’ve spent so much time writing for newspapers and different media outlets that I lost touch with how to write complex things in a way that they are communicated simply and yet retain their complexity. Best moment? Having a paragraph recently flagged as exactly what my supervisor was looking for in terms of control.
Writing is hard; writing well comes from striving to constantly improve, especially when the notes that will allow us to do that are freely given in the context of the pursuit of higher education. So, from one professional writer’s perspective, the red pen and comments are not a bad thing or something to fear, but merely, another opportunity for growth.