This came up in two of my classes last week. And back in August I pushed back a little on Eric Hayot’s approach to it. But today I find myself being mainly grateful for his honesty on the subject. In his Elements of Academic Style, he writes:
Let’s start with fear. I am terrified — seriously terrified — of academic writing. Nothing that I do confronts me as strongly with a fear of total, consuming incompetency and inadequacy. The problem is that I’m trying to be great, and I am (quite reasonably, unfortunately) afraid that I am not great. (P. 17)
I think some of my students are entirely familiar with this feeling. So am I, of course. But this morning a clip of Barack Obama urging college students to “get over” their obsession with being politically “woke” sooner rather than later has inspired me to repeat what I told my students last week.
If you’re seriously afraid of hearing what your classmates think of your writing (or of them finding out what you think of theirs) you need to “get over that quickly” too. At a deeper level you are, of course, like Eric and I, afraid that you’re ideas aren’t so “great”. When we write for our peers we are exposing our ideas to criticism from people who are specifically qualified to tell us we are wrong. This can be a little scary, to be sure, but it is important that we face this difficulty squarely every day. It is by facing our fears that we overcome them.
To that end, make sure that you face a fear that you really can overcome. You don’t cure your fear of heights by going skydiving on the first day. (Disclaimer: I am not a psychologists or in any way an expert on phobias. I’m talking about ordinary, garden-variety fear, here.) You have to find a small manageable occasion on which to face it. You should cultivate my “little disciplines” and seek “unfiltered feedback” on the results. Write a single paragraph in a single, well-defined sitting. Then ask a peer for a few minutes of feedback on what you have made. Do the writing deliberately and listen to the feedback carefully. Relax. Don’t make it a big ordeal or a socially complicated act. When it’s done you’re a little stronger and little less afraid of exposing your ideas to criticism.
As Obama says, even the best person has flaws; your enemies love their children too. Good writers can have bad ideas and even the greatest thinkers have written some impenetrable prose. Get comfortable with the idea of not being great in every paragraph. Then just put your mind to being as a good as you can. And put yourself out there.