Doing What You’re Not Good At

My friend and mentor, Dr. Susan Somers-Willett, once told me that most academic writers are much better at close reading than theoretical framing, or vice versa. She described herself as more naturally inclined toward bigger-picture scholarly questions. I am more of a detail-oriented, pick-apart-the-text-one-syllable-at-a-time kind of woman.

Back then, I thought there might be something wrong with me because I was having such a hard time thinking about my project in terms of literary theory or contemporary scholarship. The idea that I might be better at something that Susan was–whether true or not–was pretty exciting.

I continue to struggle to fit these two types of thinking into a single piece of academic writing. Today, starting a chapter revision, I decided to completely ignore all my evidence and examples, and focus on getting the big-picture, scholarly conversation stuff in place.

It was scary but so worth it! I already have a wealth of examples to draw from previous drafts. But rather than try to build an argument around those pieces of evidence, I focused on writing all my ideas on a rather daunting topic–nothing less than the history of poetry as a genre. I came away from my work this morning knowing that my advisor will not find the same old weaknesses in this version of the chapter.

I don’t know if I could have used this technique in earlier drafts or not. Without realizing I was doing it, I started writing my dissertation by putting down a wealth of detail that had no real point. It would have been awesome to figure out my theoretical questions before writing, but I don’t know if I was capable of doing that then.

Nevertheless, wherever you are in your writing project, I encourage you to try on an alter-ego for a day. Be the person whose strengths are your greatest weaknesses. It might be easier than you expect.


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