Anyone Can Learn How to Write

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A lot of student writers don’t seem to be very happy about being student writers. When they get a paper assignment, they ignore it for as long as possible — until roughly eleven o’clock on the night before it’s due. And then they simply start typing, hoping with all their hearts that whatever comes out of their fingertips will not need to be revised.

Is this your own sad story, student writer?

The Humble Essay by Roy K. Humble, front cover

There are usually two reasons for this kind of procrastination. One reason, we can all admit, is laziness. Sadly, The Humble Essay won’t help anyone be less lazy. Only life can teach you that — as it will, and probably with something a little more devastating than lousy grades. But the other reason for procrastination is pain avoidance, and if pain is why you put off writing, The Humble Essay can help.

With college writing, the pain you are trying to avoid comes mostly from not knowing what you’re doing with this more technical kind of writing. It can be a challenging skill to develop, and no matter how good your teacher’s explanations are, it takes time and practice to actually figure out what to do. In the meantime, you guess. Having to guess is frustrating enough on its own, but what makes it worse is knowing that every bad guess you make has a good chance of lowering your grade. It’s like having to dance in front of your girlfriend’s friends when 1) you don’t really know how to dance and 2) you also know that your girlfriend’s friends are comparing you to her previous boyfriend, the one with all the facial hair. And the sun glasses.

But the simple and encouraging truth about college writing is that it’s just a thing you do. If you can figure out how to drive a car or take care of a cat or manipulate loved ones into doing the dishes for you — and you can — then you can figure out how to write a college essay. It’s not that complicated. You just have to take the learning process seriously.

To get started, you need to have a better understanding of what’s expected of you. That’s where The Humble Essay comes in. The first half of this book explains what the college essay is and how formal writing differs from the informal writing you’re used to. It lays out what’s expected of you so that you can stop guessing about that. The second half of the book shows you how to put these guidelines into practice so that the essays you create will meet those formal expectations. You still have to read the book carefully — this isn’t a vampire novel, after all — but you can handle that. In fact, it’s a good idea for you to read every chapter twice. The second time through is where you do most of the learning, believe it or not.

To start putting these ideas into practice, it’s also a good idea to work with someone who is more experienced at writing than you are, someone who can help you understand these ideas and check your progress. If you’re reading this book because a writing professor has forced you to read it, then you’re in luck. Make good use of that professor. Go to her office hours with questions. Raise your hand in class and ask her what she means by “discourse community.” Read — twice — every comment on every paper. Many schools offer free tutoring from writing teachers or accomplished students, and that’s another excellent source of help. Don’t be shy about getting extra help whenever you need it. That’s why it’s there, after all.

To really know what you’re doing, however, the main thing  you have to do is simply write, and write a lot, so that you can see for yourself what it means to put these ideas into practice. Learning how to write the college essay is a lot like learning how to French kiss. Reading about it will only take you so far. To really learn how to do it, you have to actually do it — again and again and again.

Don’t be afraid of struggling. You will struggle. So what? Whenever you learn to do something new — roller-skating, computer programming, darts, anything — making mistakes is an important part of the learning process. In fact, it shows that you’re getting somewhere. So don’t take those mistakes personally. You certainly can’t look at them as failures. You just have to make your mistakes, correct them, and then move on to more sophisticated errors. Mistakes are not a big deal.

One day in first grade, I got a frowny face on a math test. My class had moved from addition to subtraction without any warning, and I’d missed seven of nine problems. Seven of nine! I was a mess the rest of the day, barely able to hold it together during the longest afternoon recess of my life.

When I came home from school, my mother was in her bedroom watching Queen for a Day, so I wasn’t allowed to bother her, but my big sister Nadine was in the living room practicing for her interpretive dance recital. I dropped onto the couch and began crying.

“What now?” she said.

I blubbered to her about the frowny face.

“Well,” she said, gently waving her arms like a willow tree enlivened by a summer breeze. “It’s just math. Even a dodo bird can learn math.”

That was one of the most supportive things Nadine ever said to me. It gave me the courage to return to school the next day and begin the hard work of learning how to subtract. And she was right, too. It was just math, and with enough practice — and just a little help — any dodo bird really can learn how to do math.

Learning how to write the college essay might be a little painful for a while. It might not be the first thing you want to do on a Friday night — or Wednesday morning. But student writer, always remember that it’s just writing. It’s just the college essay. You don’t need to dread it or avoid it any longer. You just need to acquire a few basic ideas. You need to put them into practice. And in no time at all, you’ll find that it’s easy enough to keep writing because the guessing will be over. You’ll know what you’re doing. And perhaps most amazing of all, you’ll begin to actually enjoy writing about all the new ideas you discover as you educate yourself about one topic after another.

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