Evolving your writing skills is integral to communicating well. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson discusses the elements of good writing and how to develop your writing expertise.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and today we’re talking to Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson, faculty in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. And our conversation today is about writing, why bother. Welcome, Jennifer.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Thanks Bjorn. I’m happy to be back.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. I love having you here. Our conversations are always great. And writing is one of the more important skills that most people have a lot of anxiety about. And so, the first question is why is solid writing important?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: It’s our base for communication in a lot of things we do, especially with more schools having online components. One of the stronger things you have to be able to do is write, but writing doesn’t start at the collegiate level. So, writing is a lifelong learning activity for most people. So, when we start, we start out young, three, four, preschool, kindergarten, and we’re given rules.
Prior to that, we could just color. And we have coloring books and it’s all over the place. And once we hit school, we’re then told, “Okay, now you need to color within the lines. You need to make sense of things.” And these are our first forms of composition, which later turns into writing. And then as we start through the schooling process for second grade, you get the two-, three-, and four-letter words, you start combining rudimentary sentences.
Then by third and fourth grade, you’re taught not only to write slightly differently, slightly more advanced using more adjectives and adverbs, but you are also learning cursive, which is a completely different style of writing. And then especially today’s kids are also learning keyboarding at the same time so yet one more different way to write.
And then you hit fifth and sixth grade, you start to put together basic essays. Then you hit middle school and you start to add in some research and some proof. And by the time you’re in high school, you are asked to do standard five paragraph essays, have a strong thesis statement, have some basic research in there. So, by the time you hit first year writing, you have been writing for 12 years, but you’ve had the rules changed on you every couple of years as to what good writing looks like, how you should put it down on the page.
But the honest truth is a lot of people don’t understand the difference between good solid writing and just meeting a word count. And to date myself, way back in the ’80s, there was a movie called Summer School. And the thing that always stuck out to me is the students had failed. So, they were taking summer school English, and they had to write an essay and it had to reach 500 words.
And so, one of the students just used the word very probably 450 times to hit that word count. So, he hit the word count, but the essay was just very, very, very, very, very using the word very. So, difference being solid writing actually informs people, it persuades people, it humors people, but it gets the point across in a very clear way that can’t be misinterpreted.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: When we talk, we’ve all been talking our entire lives, all of us are pretty good at talking. So, we can have the time to explain ourselves and in case we miscommunicated, to talk through it. With writing, you have to really focus on that from the beginning. If people misinterpret your writing, that means that you probably have to edit your writing.
You had said previously that most instructors feel like students should be able to write by the time they’re 18 or 19. But honestly, I didn’t really figure out how to write even into my graduate studies, like truly actually figure out how to write and truly communicate effectively. And even then, even today, me, well into my forties, I’m always making mistakes and I’m always having to check myself with my own writing.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: So, I’m going to reach back to the first thing you said, we speak all the time, but really stop to think about how many times we trip over words, how many times we use the wrong word, we use the wrong tense. It’s amazing that yes, we speak all the time. We’ve been speaking in our native language for the majority of our lives, and yet we still stumble and fall. The same is with writing.
You can have a really good idea in your head. What I tend to tell people is I am brilliant in my head, everything is fluid, it’s articulate, it’s just absolutely wonderful. And somewhere around my elbow, it gets locked up. So, by the time my fingers tap on the keyboard, it may or may not be intelligible. I’ll probably have to go through and take a time with edit.
But I think the misconception is because we’ve been writing for so long through education, that we’re supposed to be able to do it and do it well. It’s a practice, it’s something that absolutely atrophies if you don’t use it often. One of the big things I get from a lot of students is they’re like, “Well, I just can’t do it.” Number one, now you set up a mental block that you can’t do it. Number two, it is something you have to practice. And there are different ways to teach writing.
You also brought up math, which is not my fondest subject. It’s one that I have to work with, I really do. One of the things that actually allowed my brain to calm down and stop berating myself of you should be able to do this, is I learned that there are seven different ways to teach math. The US employs one. So, when I learned about the different methodologies, what I learned is I learn best in the Japanese style of how they teach math and the style that the US uses doesn’t make sense in my brain.
Once I learned that, then I could work with it. The same goes with writing. You can talk people through, this is how you do a sentence, this is how you create a thesis statement. And if they don’t understand your particular method of instruction, you might as well ask them to go dig sweet potatoes out of the backyard and then turn them into green beans because that’s the logic. So, it has to be a little more fluid.
People have to understand just because a book says to write in one way or one teacher says to write in one way, it may not be the way that their brain makes sense of how the task is to be done. One of the things that I think really helped me in solidifying my own personal writing is the fact that I have a dyslexic husband and his brain does not process the written word like my brain does.
It just does not. It doesn’t make sense of the spaces; some words just don’t make sense when he reads them. Now, when he hears it orally makes perfect sense. Seeing the written word, there’s a disconnect. That in itself forced me to really look at how do I put things on the page.
If I’m writing him a quick text and asking him to pick up certain things, I’ve had to learn if I’m being overly exaggerating, he’s not going to get it. It’s just not going to work for him. So just recognizing that people’s brains decipher writing differently helps me approach writing slightly differently, and I think it actually helps me explain writing slightly differently to students in a way that I would never have thought to before had I not had that thing personally in my life.
I think where some of the frustration can come in is professors in other departments expecting students to have gone through one first year writing course and then be magnificent writers. And my pushback to that is, well, if a student has French for one semester, should I expect them to be fluent by the end of class? And the answer is no. It’s a practice, it’s a skill that we have to continue to build on.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s a great example. And it makes me think of like, if you do take French, how long would it take? Well, it would probably take at least 18 credits, so six classes to even be able to be kind of okay at French. And then you’d have to be able to practice it every day probably with someone who speaks French.
And so, I think writing in the same way, like really you need about 18 credits of actual writing courses on top of practicing it in a way in which isn’t difficult, or you view as negative, going to class and probably writing papers. Most students probably won’t be like, “Ooh, this is fun.” But if there’s ways you can actually write which is enjoyable and you get a lot of positive feedback from it, that will help you try to do it even more. And so, what are some best practices when it comes to writing?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Biggest tip I give every single student is dedicate a specific time every single day, every single day. So, if you’re an early morning riser and you can get up at 5:30am and write, number one, more power to you, that’s not me, but you need to set up a specific time. So, it’s just like any other sort of training.
So, my writing time for me is 8:00 to 8:30 every single morning. What that does is it starts my brain saying, okay, it’s 8 o’clock, we’re going to write. And you actually have a physical reaction to this. Once you train your brain that you’re going to get up and write at a specific time, you get more blood flow to the brain, your pupils dilate a little bit giving you a little bit more light, your synapses fire in a particular way. So, make it a habit even if it’s only for 10 minutes every day.
People have this misconception; I have to sit down and write for three hours every day. Well, no, you don’t. Actually, when you’re building a practice, consistency is the best practice you can possibly have. Sit down and write. And then if you’re really having a real rough time writing once you get to the end of your timeframe, so for me, it’s a half an hour, I write five minutes more.
And it’s forcing myself to say, “Okay, you had a rough time, but we’re going to push through, we’re going to do an extra five minutes.” And it might be the most excellent pile of garbage words I have ever written, but what I start to do is train myself of, well, we can’t just stop mid-sentence, we can’t just not do this thing because it makes us uncomfortable.
And I think what a lot of people do is they get stuck for a hiccup and then they allow themselves to quit. So, with anything, with music, with athletics, same with writing and schooling is you now have to set a schedule. So, first practice number one, learn when you write the best. I had a writing group and one of the women she’s like, “I’m going to get up and write at 6 o’clock every morning.” And everybody’s like, “Oh, that’s great.” And I was like, “But do you get up at 6:00am?”
If you don’t habitually get up at 6:00am, you’re not going to force yourself to get up at 6:00am and then write on top of it. So, find the time that you write best. It does take a little bit of experimentation. For me, I like the first thing in the morning because it’s quiet and my brain has not been clogged up with all the other things I have to do for the day. Midafternoon writing for me, I can do. In the evening, I mean, I can hypothetically write, but it’s not good writing, that in itself is frustrating.
So, if you’re forcing yourself to write at a time where it doesn’t work from you, you’re not going to produce anything of quality. So that derails you from trying to set up a practice. The other practice thing is write it down in a notebook. And I know it’s really easy for people to say, “But I have a laptop and I hate transcribing.” When you write in a notebook, that is your first draft.
And there is an article called Shitty First Drafts. It’s not just me cussing to cuss, that’s actually the name of the article where the author talks about all first drafts are terrible, they just are. It’s raw thoughts coming down on a page in ways that don’t necessarily make sense. I mean, you may have a sentence or two that’s glorious, but first drafts are bad, but there is a bigger connect between pen or pencil in hand and drawing on a page and writing on a page versus typing.
So even though I will not pen a 90,000-word novel in completion in a notebook. I have a lot of notes. When I hit a problem area, I definitely write them out because it helps my brain think faster. But notebooks are, I think some people collect them because they’re pretty and they look nice and then people don’t actually use them. Use your notebooks. If you’re going to collect them, at least use them. So, time of day writing in a notebook.
The other thing is, find a writing group. There are tons of online writing groups for everything. So, it’s not just creative writing. There’s poetry, there are academic groups. You need another set of eyes 100%. You’re going to need another set of eyes. You also need people you can talk to about writing that want to talk about writing. Because I teach writing, I have two children that love to write absolutely 100% they want to write all the time and they do.
And for me, it’s that interesting thing of watching them as young children write their stories, which are wholly creative, but don’t make sense. But now as they get a little older, it’s like, “Oh, okay. So, here’s the beginning, middle, and end. Here are these high notes that are happening. Here’s the climax of the story. Here are all these different things happening.” The best benefit I have is that we talk about it because we all enjoy it.
So, when I get frustrated, yes, I turn to my 12-year-old and my 19-year-old and say, “This doesn’t make sense in this story.” And then they give me their feedback, which is good. I mean, it’s 100% they’re going to see things very differently than I do. But I also have an online writing group where they’re a little older, a little more seasoned and they can really dig into the problem. But even my kids give me feedback in ways that are always helpful. So, find a group you can work with, find people who enjoy talking about writing.
You can’t force talking about writing on someone who absolutely despises it and doesn’t do it. So, find a few sounding boards and then the best practice is don’t give up. I know it’s hard, it’s rough. Sometimes you want to bang your head on a wall, a desk somewhere, but you get through it. And eventually when you get through it, hopefully you’ve learned a few tips to take along the way.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I get up at 5:30am and I actually do after I get the dog settled, I write from 6:00am to 7:00am. It’s very quiet. And I also try to write a little at the end of the day. It’s successful sometimes, sometimes not. But I have really found that if you write every day, you are in the consistency, you get in the practice, you’re able to then write.
I think a lot of people… And I find this with myself with my music, when I’m recording my music, when I sit down, I think it has to be perfect now because I only have X amount of minutes to record this line. And sometimes after 30 minutes of trying to just play one line, I have to throw it out because I wasn’t able to do it and I feel like that 30 minutes was lost. But in reality, I was practicing.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Absolutely.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Every time you practice helps you lead to the next time that’s better. And so, we have to have that time hopefully every day where you’re just trying and trying and trying because that practice helps you. And I also like how you said having to have that people who you can talk to about it. And even like with your kids, having people of different ages. Sometimes we get stuck in our own age group, bringing in other people will give you different ideas on how to communicate with everyone.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Especially when you write a younger character. So, I was writing a slightly younger character and my oldest child looked and he’s like, “Well, that’s not what we would do at all because I’m old and I’m out of touch with teenagers.” I was like, “Please enlighten me.” So, he did.
And it made a lot of really good sense, but sometimes if I’m going to talk about being a teenager, I’m going to have to pop back to the 1980s or so and then take those. But yeah, the teenagers of the 2000s and especially 2010 and up are very different in how they see things, how they access things, how they think about things because they do have smartphones, they do have information accessible in a way I did not as a teenager.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s a great observation because I would say the time in which we grew up, there was not an Internet that people could access. And yeah, the kids today, the kids and young adults today, they’ve grown up in a world where everybody’s connected, there’s videos instantly that could be shared around the world, other dangers I guess you could say that we did not have at the time. So, it is very different. And like any good research, we just have to figure that out.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: So, you’re talking about your practice and how sometimes you have to throw a line out. Interestingly enough, I have a folder on my computer called story bits. And literally they are chunks from different stories that I’ve worked on that did not work in that story that I’m just not ready to delete yet. I’m like maybe it’ll work in a different story, it didn’t work in this one. So even when we create things that don’t necessarily work in one place, sometimes, sometimes they work in others.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s a great reflection because I was actually listening, so I always describe myself as like a level 10 composer of music. I know what I’m doing. And I’m like a level three, a writer. I kind of know what I’m doing. I’ve had some success, but I still struggle. And I was actually listening to a piece that I wrote probably in 2015 and it was children’s music but set to jazz harmonies.
And so, as I was listening to it, I was like, “Oh, this just doesn’t work.” It was so weird because like I wrote it, I completed it, I actually even recorded it. And then as I was listening to it with my ears years later, it just doesn’t work. But then the piece I wrote right before it and right after it, they still work. There’s just something about that three months of my life when I was writing that that today it doesn’t work, but I keep it.
I can look back at it somehow, maybe I can reuse it. But you don’t delete your attempts because you can still use them somehow in the future potentially. Or it’s just part of the experience of creation that upon reflection you’re like, “Well it’s not my best, but that’s okay.”
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Absolutely. And I think I’m the flip of you. I’ve done some composition, dubious composition maybe. I’ve actually recorded a couple of things, but yeah, level three composer.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, it is funny. And I hope people know that even those of us who have studied and written and done stuff for a long time and published, we still struggle. And even those who are level 10, our next product might not be the best, but we have to do that product to get to then the next one. It’s like our masterpiece. If we knew which piece was our masterpiece, we would just write it. But a masterpiece is only realized years later typically after having written a dozen things.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: It may not be the one we would choose as a masterpiece. Other people will hear a song or read a story and be like, “Oh my gosh, that was amazing.” And you’re like, “Yeah, I wrote that on a dare.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And that is fickleness of art and that is also the joy of art. And that leads me to the next question, is what does raw and emotional writing do for people?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I think for a lot of people, it’s a catharsis if they are honest. So, a lot of people talk about journaling. And I think it is an amazing tool for everybody to try. Personally, I find journaling a little onerous. And it’s not just because, oh, I have to sit and journal and do things. But where I tend to actually journal is in the stories that I write down for public consumption.
Now I’m not going to necessarily admit which part of my stories are true or which part of my stories are false, but I actually like taking some of my own emotions, some of my own experiences and wrapping it into a story because for me, sometimes it makes more sense to see it through the lens of my characters. But once you can tap into absolutely emotional writing, absolutely raw writing, I think it opens you up to a way to avoid writer’s block.
I think a lot of blocking comes in because people are afraid if I put myself out there, people will judge. So, coming back to my students, I always tell my students it’s going to feel personal. All writing feels personal. Even if it’s research writing, it feels personal because it’s something you have done for so absolutely long. So, I try to remind people, I am not judging you, I am judging the writing on the page, the structure of the writing.
And I try to pull them back out of the emotion. But honestly the best writing is the raw writing, is the emotional writing where people can really break down why something is important, how it can affect lives. And whether that’s creative or academic research or business writing, there has to be some kind of emotion into it, otherwise, the readers don’t attach to it. So, you can have very flat formulaic writing.
Think about all the times where you have to put in a report for work or do something. But then when you have to write a personal statement where people struggle is they don’t know how to convey what they’ve done with the emotions attached. So, when somebody reads a personal statement, it’s like, “Oh, well you did these things,” and “okay, that’s great.”
One of the harder things to do is to be able to express disappointment, to express excitement, to express joy, to express sadness in a way that the reader can absorb it and feel it but doesn’t overwhelm them. So, it takes a lot of practice to get in and to formulate sentences that hit people hard. And it is a practice, it does not come easily. It’s something I still work at. It takes me 2, 3, 4 times.
I mean the times where I get it right off the bat, I celebrate, honestly, because it is something that you have to allow people to understand what you mean with the impact in which you mean it with the emotional impact on how you want them to take it. One of the worst things you can do is write a sentence so flatly that you allow the reader to interpret it how they want to instead of how you meant it to be.
But again, it’s precarious. It’s not something that people just say, “Oh, I can flop that out there.” At least none of the writers I have met. There may be geniuses out there that can do that. But putting emotion into your writing no matter what it is gives you as the author then that power to curate the narrative how you want it to play out.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love that because adding emotion to writing means that people will actually want to read it. Academic writing in college and stuff like that, usually it’s pretty flat and it’s for purpose. And not that there’s not a motion in academic writing, but typically not.
But when we write to be creative, we are telling some sort of story. And when you tell a story, you are emotionally connecting with someone. And everybody’s different. Some people will write raw emotions all the time. I mean, it might be a little much for some people and others will really craft their writing to be a little more subtle and make you work at it a little more. But just like you said, however you develop that style, you have to be intentional in how you are trying to communicate versus allowing the reader to fully interpret all the time.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Yeah, I like to say real solid writing, real good writing is kind of like anticipating that first kiss where you set things up and you’re getting ready and you lean in, but the other person has to lean in too. And that’s how good writing is received. You set the frame, you give them all the details and then you give them that last 10, 15% to put their own spin on how they accept it.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I love that, especially the imagery of requiring the other person to lean in and that totally makes sense. And so, the next question was cursing in writing. Should we do it? Should we add it? Should we include it?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I think there is a time and a place. The rule in my household for cursing because I worked very hard to give my children a very expansive vocabulary, but sometimes when you cram your big toe into a door, there’s only one word that’s coming out of your mouth or a variety of different words. So, the rule about cursing in our house is, is there any better word to describe what’s happening?
Because if you drop a cast iron skillet on your toe, it’s not going to be sugar daddy, it’s just not. It can be done well, as long as it’s impactful. So, you mentioned before about some people get really raw with their writing and that’s good once or twice sometimes. But if it comes out really heavy every single time, just like cursing, if you have a string of curses, okay, now I’m skimming.
The first time it’s impactful because now I’m shocked that you’ve done something. But if that is something that then becomes a gimmick, it’s not impacting anymore. So yeah, cursing every once in a while I don’t think is a bad thing especially when you write in dialects. Some people come from areas where cursing is just a thing.
Some people come from areas where you don’t necessarily understand them because of how heavy an accent they can have. So, I think it can work. Where I don’t think it should always be placed is as a shocking element. I mean, if you have to drop a curse word to shock somebody, you might want to rework how you’re setting up that paragraph or the sentence. But sometimes yes, when you throw emotion in, you drop the S bomb, or you drop a D bomb or all these other bombs that you have to drop because it feels natural in the setting.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love that because I’m someone who naturally never curses. I’ll say golly, gee, and stuff like that. And it sounds funny, but I actually work hard at not cursing. But in writing and also in life, there is a time and a place where you want that impact to be felt, that the emotional response isn’t always flat. If you want readers to respond to your writing emotionally, you can use that. And if you’re one like me who very rarely uses curse words, then you can really plan, plan it out when you’re going to use it, so it actually is extraordinarily impactful in the story.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Absolutely. It’s that very nuanced area. Just like you want to put in some really heavy hitting things sometimes, yeah, curse word every now and again, especially depending out of the character the words come from can have that impact where nothing else will. So, when I tend to write, there’s not a lot of cursing in my writing. There’s not actually a lot of cursing in my day life, except for stubbing my toe and then whew.
But I try to find those places where it would organically happen. And not necessarily as a shock factor, but sometimes you have days, you just have days. And if I’m doing a good job of leading people through my characters’ emotions and upsets and joys, yeah, periodically there may be a curse. But overall, I try to use a more expansive vocabulary.
Part of that is my dad just how he likes to read is he likes to learn new words. And that was something that was impressed upon me really early. So, I continue with it. It’s like, oh, new words are a good thing, this is not a bad thing. So, if I have to look up a word in a book, I’m pretty excited.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It makes me think of reality TV where I think a lot of people have watched reality TV now for a long time. And cursing is every other word at times. But that’s a certain entertainment product which has its niche, has its place. But then writing hopefully is to entertain and to elucidate and to really uplift hopefully and make people think. And so, it’s different than reality TV or different things like that.
And so, by being careful with your curse words, or as you said with different words, knowing and understanding the actual definition and meaning and context of words is actually one of the more difficult things that people do. Because so often people use words incorrectly. You see it in politics, you see it… Anybody on TV, they’ll just throw words around and then you have to say, “Do they know what they’re saying?” And actually, sometimes they don’t.
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I think it’s the humbling moment where sometimes people think they know, they have used the word incorrectly without anyone correcting them long enough that they’re certain they know what it means. But I think that’s kind of the joy of our vocabulary which does grow and change, and previously used words have a new meaning all of a sudden.
And I think that’s really one of the beauties of language, is it does get to grow, it does get to change. So, writing actually does date stamp certain things. Certain terms that I would use five, six years ago, my children disdainfully tell me that’s no longer a word I should be using, I’m not cool when I use it.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: As time goes by, cultural meaning, cultural usage, and also just finding new words, like you said. Like a word I discovered recently is hells again. And I had not experienced that word before, but it is a wonderful word. And so absolutely wonderful conversation. We are at time, Jennifer, any final words?
Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Keep writing. Give yourself that extra five minutes. It is a skill. It’s something that you can play with. It doesn’t always have to be serious; it can be something to enjoy. And for people who are cringing thinking, “I will never get to enjoy writing,” perhaps you just haven’t found your niche yet.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I love that. And everybody has a niche. It is true everybody has a certain style of writing and everybody has an audience. An absolutely wonderful conversation, Jennifer. Thank you so much. And today we’re speaking with Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson about writing, why bother? My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and thank you for listening.