Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

How I Came to Know Myself as a Bad Writer

When you told me that the passive voice was a huge problem in my writing. I went home and googled “passive voice.”

When you told me that I was “so much more clear in person than in writing."

When the end comments on an early paper were, in total: “It’s a interesting topic, but it seems underdeveloped and the prose is impossible. Let me know if you wish to meet about it."

When you wrote in the margin “unclear” and “unpack” as if I knew what was unclear, or what you found compelling.

When I worked all semester reading books in multiple fields for an independent study, and the draft came back with two or three questions about the ideas, and at least six comments about verb tenses.

When I defended my exams, and you told me that my ideas were compelling but my prose was convoluted. You reiterated that I clearly understood the material, as evidenced by an accurate and insightful defense, but was “falling down” when it came to writing.

When I struggled with the prospectus, because my methods were new and my object of study new and emerging, and early draft comments left me confused about whether the ideas were bad, or just not expressed clearly.

When I told you that I had signed up for a university sponsored, interdisciplinary writing group and was finding them very helpful in drafting my prospectus, and you warned me to “be careful” letting other people see such “rough work.”  

When I presented my project in my prospectus defense, and I felt like I better understood my project having discussed it out loud. I loved making slides for the defense, picking out clips and writing presenter notes. I felt gut punched when you asked me to write a four to five page response to the defense, clarifying my “actual” project because it didn’t match what I had written, and to specify ways in which I would improve my writing during the dissertation.

When I submitted that five page document, I wrote this, believing it to be the takeaway of my defense: 

“Most importantly, I have spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on the differences between my oral presentation and prospectus as written, and the concerns raised in my defense about the confidence that is lacking in my written work.”

When no one reached out with struggles of their own, or suggestions on how to build a robust writing practice, or an anecdote about how many drafts it might take for something to be polished, or how to find or hire or pay for an editor, leaving me to think that these were problems that made me unfit to be an academic.

When you observed my teaching, or heard me explaining a concept to a student, and said “I wish you were as good at explaining your own ideas as you are someone else’s.”

When I told you that I would love feedback on a less polished draft, and you informed me that you didn’t have time to read works in progress.

When I wrote chapter drafts by myself, sharing them with a writing group I was meeting with privately because I didn’t know if it was okay to share my work.

When I asked to share chapter drafts with other faculty members on my committee, and you reminded me that you needed to see every chapter first, and you would then decide if they needed to read it.

When I scheduled a clandestine meeting over Skype with my outside committee member to discuss a chapter I didn't have permission to share, and felt guilty letting anyone see “such messy work” and apologized profusely. I then was given the most productive and insightful critiques I’d had on the entire project.

When it came time for my defense, and the conversations were lively, stimulating, and foundational, and I was left mourning all the ways the project would have been different had I had space or resources for conversations like those before I had submitted my dissertation.

When I was called back into the room to hear if I had passed or not, and you recommended hiring a copy editor to edit the document in the ten days I had remaining. I didn’t have the money for that, so I asked friends to read chapters individually, feeling more shame than I ever had. The grammatical errors were minor, easily fixed. No one had trouble understanding what I meant.


But then, I sent pieces out for publication, and found editors generous and generative.

And I met with other students and we talked about ideas, online and in person, and my work got better.

And then I started, with much shame and embarrassment, to write on my blog about teaching, something I was “actually good at” and found that people understood me even though it was in a written form.

And then I realized that I loved playing with other people’s ideas, helping them see where structures could be stronger or clearer, only to find out that this was developmental editing and I could do it and be paid for it.

And then I had clients who came back to say that their ideas were stronger, clearer, and sharper after I had worked with them.

And then I got hired to write material for universities and businesses.

And then people started to read my blog about grad school, many more people than ever before. And more than that, they started to respond to ideas I wrote about, and share their own.

And then, one day, a client met me for the first time and said, “You’re just how I thought you’d be, after reading all your writing.”