Introductory Writing

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.’

-Richard Bach

If there is a flock of pigeons, a murder of crows, and a flamboyance of flamingos, I believe there must be a confusion of metaphors. I can—and have—described writing and writing instruction as an art, a web, and a form of dance. The latter, though, is my favorite. If writing had a physical expression, it would be dancing, although I am markedly better at one than the other.

Ballet has a variety of starting positions, and once the dance begins, the dancer must keep track of a multitude of factors: the position of one’s feet and legs, the position of one’s arms, the rhythm of the music, the strain in one’s muscles, balance, heart rate, breathing, the positions of the other dancers, and set design. Dance is an art of understanding how one’s body occupies a space.

In a similar way, there are multiple ways a student can begin a paper, but the initial angle and precision of the entrance can have repercussions for the entire performance. Once a paper begins, the writer must keep track of ideas, sources, grammar, syntax, the ratio of evidence to analysis, citations, limitations of the argument, counterarguments, pacing, and length requirements. A good dancer knows how their body moves through a space, and a good writer knows how their ideas move through their words.

Some people are born with more grace and spatial awareness than others, but everyone can take classes and learn basic choreography. They may not be able to perform with the Bolshoi, but they can participate in local pageants. Or, you might never win a Pulitzer or a Nobel prize, but you can always learn to write a decent rhetorical analysis, work grant, research paper, or whichever document is most relevant to your field.

I spent four semesters as a supplementary writing instructor, passing students at the bar and correcting their posture. One of the most common issues I noticed was that students would learn one type of choreography, but once they received a new assignment, they would stumble and lose confidence.

Some people believe that there is a secret to writing, but in truth, everyone is constantly learning and relearning the steps, learning to fit the turn of one paragraph to the entrance of another. Dancers have different rituals and superstitions, whereas writers have their own approaches to the writing process, labeling them as either pantsers or plotsers (plotsers being those who plan out their writing and pantsers being those who prefer to fly by the seat of their pants). Not one single approach or set of rituals works for each person, and no two performances are the same, even if the performers are presented with the same music and the same set of steps (in literary terms: the same prompt and background materials). That singularity is the beauty and the frustration of all forms of art—there are rules, but the rules are often so flexible and intuitive that they are difficult to learn except through trial and error.

Sometimes, though, that is what a student needs: experience. They need to be able to fail and come back from failure, to fumble the landing but keep practicing the routine. Everyone can write, and everyone can learn to write. Capability is mostly a matter of believing in one’s abilities, and everything else is practice, practice, practice.