Once upon a quarter, I went to office hours more often than I was accustomed to. I’d go early in the morning, makeup free and hair in a curled mess, just to squeeze in 10 minutes with my TA. I’d patiently wait outside with a freshly printed copy of a thesis statement or some jumbled thoughts on a possible topic. As a rule my professor offered no prompts. He claimed that it was the best way for us to find topics we all enjoyed talking about. So whenever I came in, my TA and I would spend most of our ten minutes going over my topic. Normally this would be helpful but I never got much out of our meetings.
You see, while I appreciated my professor’s “no prompt rule” as a student, all students had to pick out a few sentences/lines from each work to write on. These “excerpts” had to be continuous and couldn’t come from different parts of the work. In other words, if we read a 350 page novel, our ideas had to come from half a page of writing somewhere in the book.
Besides the fact that I have a tiny problem with authority and restrictive rules, I really struggled with the guidelines for the class. When I began writing papers I often found myself confused on what it is I was supposed to achieve. What was the point about writing a paper as short as 3 pages, especially when those three pages were centered on a few sentences?
My sessions with my TA weren’t any better. Whenever I had a question about how to do something, my TA would often respond with “expand on that idea” or “think about this.”I was never really given concrete feedback on what it is I was doing “wrong.”I say “wrong” because my ideas weren’t wrong, it was my delivery that was making my papers weak. Yet, I would often leave office hours thinking that my ideas and my opinions needed to change.
What I really needed was help finding a direction to take, and help narrowing down my ideas. But at the time, all I saw were the low grades my papers would receive because of my disinvestment in what I wanted to express. It took a while to dig myself out of the hole I had dug myself into but one of the first steps I was able to take to feel better and write better was to focus on the development of my voice. I started to pretend what my papers would be like if I didn’t have to write them for a class. What would they sound like?
When I looked back at my old papers and noticed the traces of someone else’s style and voice in my writing I had a deep craving to revise and rewrite. Even if it was just for me. I would mark up my papers, change beginnings, revise endings, in the end I produced an entirely new product. This process, what I’ll call “revisiting,” helped me develop the voice and style of my current writing because I realized that if I started writing for myself instead of for a professor or a TA, completing the writing process was less stressful and much more enjoyable. Writing papers became a no-pressure scenario.
So I guess what I’m saying is…writing papers for someone else can really suck. They more often than not have rules for you to follow and have restrictions, but if you think about the assignment, if you pretend for a moment that the assignment is a free-write for yourself, you can make the first steps in the writing process not as painful and depressing as normal.