Writing Spaces

on blogging and becoming a better writer

Part of a series of blog posts that will become an essay I am writing for the forthcoming Writing Spaces textbook.

Over the last 15 years or so, I've taught first-year writing courses at five different colleges (including my time in grad school). In my experience, one always sees a range of academic writing performance. More selective institutions might have generally better-performing student writers, but as far as I can tell there is rarely more than a handful of students in any class who have a real desire to become better writers that goes beyond the pragmatic goal of getting better grades on essay assignments.

Does that sound like a condemnation of some kind? It shouldn't. I don't think there's anything wrong with not wanting to become a writer, anymore than there's anything wrong with not wanting to be a surgeon or a carpenter. As Malcolm Gladwell and others have observed, it takes some 10,000 hours of dedication to a craft or profession to become an "expert." Obviously this is a generalization that provokes as many questions as it answers, but the fairly self-evident bottom-line point here is that becoming good at anything worth becoming good at takes a lot of time.

Think about it this way. I've been blogging for a little over six years and have some 650 posts and quite likely 500,000+ words. Often when I discuss this with others, especially non-bloggers, they respond by wondering where I find the time to do so much writing. But the truth is that this represents less than 1000 hours of work over six years, less than 150 hours a year. If I am on my way toward becoming an expert writer in my field, which I ought to be as a tenured professor of rhetoric and composition, then I should be spending quite a bit more time than that writing. If I spent 10 hours a week writing, about 500 hours a year, it would take me 20 years to reach that magic 10,000 hour mark. At that rate, my apparrently prolific blogging would realistically be around 20% of my time.

So here are two analogies. I go to the gym and do my regular 40-50 minute workout. I spend 8-10 minutes on stretching. Stretching is to exercise like blogging is to my other writing. When I was an undergrad, I was in a band. We would get together and practice for a couple hours. We'd always spend 15-20 minutes just jamming and trying out new things… for fun. That's like blogging too.

Now that might sound like a criticism or belittling of blogging, but in my view stretching or jamming are integral elements of exercise and music. Blogging is a place where I can stretch myself, try out new ideas, keep my writing chops up while I'm in-between longer writing projects, and so on. And, of course, blogging can be more than that, and for other bloggers, this medium is where they do their most important work, but speaking strictly for myself, the blog is more of a place for working out ideas than it is the place where I envision I will do my most important work.

But what does all this mean for the student in the first-year writing course? For one thing, it should be an indication of the level of work involved in becoming a good writer. A hard-working student in a first-year writing course might put in 100 hours. A student in a writing intensive major might spend 1000 hours writing to get her degree. At that rate, one would reach expertise just in time to retire. Of course one doesn't need to reach "expert" level in order to get better. Very few people are expert writers, and being a little better might make all the difference in terms of a student's educational and professional goals. While becoming a better writer is certainly about more than simply putting in the hours, putting in the time is a necessary part. Unless one plans on being a professional blogger, blogging is essentially a place where one can hone one's skill as a writer that can be put into practice in other places that really count for you. Blogging can be more than that, but at minimum it can be this.

The average college senior writes around 150 pages according to the National Survey of Student Engagement. I'm going to say that's around 200 hours of work. What would it mean to spend another hour a week during the school year (30 hours total), blogging about the academic subjects on which those students are already writing? What it would it mean to publish these low-stakes musings on course materials and share them with classmates both on campus and taking similar classes around the nation? No one really knows the answer to that question. I suppose it might be of interest to our profession or to higher education institutions to pursue some kind of broad study of such practices, but I don't think that such research would be of particular use to individual students.  No, the truth is that taking up a blogging practice like this could be worthless or invaluable to the individual. The fact that most people might find blogging a waste of time does not make it any less valuable to me. It is valuable to me because I make it valuable.

As a student in a first-year writing course, you may not envision yourself as a writer. It is understandable that you may not want to dedicate yourself to the 10,000-hour journey toward expertise. However, you might want to dedicate yourself to a more modest goal. You might want to be among the best writers in your major or among the applicants for the graduate school or job that you'll be pursuing when you graduate. Part of reaching that goal will be putting in time as a writer, and a blog can be an invaluable part of the time you spend.