Chapter 4: SELF & OTHERS
What is your "writing self"?
This chapter asks you what your "writing self" is
and helps you learn how to talk about your writing self in detail. It also asks you to
think about some of the structures of writing you already know, and it explains
how your writing--past, present, and future--is partly developed in a community
including friends, teachers, and even the authors whose books you use.
What is your writing self? It is, simply, the
part of you that is a writer. Everyone who reaches the college level has a
writing self composed of your awareness of writing and your experiences of it.
For most people, these experiences come primarily from previous
schooling--writing essays, solving math problems, answering tests, taking notes,
doing grammar or math drills, etc. However, your writing self also has
non-school writing experiences in it such as making lists, writing email or
notes to others, keeping a journal or diary, and perhaps creating some poetry,
songs, stories, or something similar. In many ways, your writing self is
like a tree. Some parts are trimmed, some wild, some parts grow evenly and
some jut out at odd angles or perhaps are just beginning to sprout. The
leaves and flowers in some parts of it are quite colorful; in other parts, they
are dried up or even missing. And some roots are deep, others shallow,
short, or close to the ground.
Your writing self also is composed partly of your
feelings and impressions about writing. Do you love it? Do you hate
it? Generally, as with other parts of our basic, inner self, not all of
our feelings and thoughts about writing are neatly organized or even necessarily
connected. A part of us, for example, may hate one type of
writing--perhaps math or grammar drills--and love another part--like writing
notes, emails, or instant messages to friends or other people in our lives.
For example, I can remember even now with a remnant of anger the hell I went
through in my second semester of college learning to write literary
interpretations for a rigid, unkind teacher who disliked giving us any examples
or personal help. I also can remember with great fondness several months
of study hall in which a friend of mine in high school, Keith, exchanged notes.
Sometimes we shared school news, gossip, or help with homework, but just as
often we played a word game. We would try to top each other with creative
ways of putting each other down, working to get each other to laugh out loud so
the other person would disrupt the quiet of study hall and get in trouble.
This was before personal computers had been invented, so it was sort of an early
form of email or instant messaging.
Another part of your writing self is your thoughts about your writing. It
is the way you can back off from your writing and take the time to reflect about
it and about your way of doing it. The word for this act of your writing
self--this thinking about the acts of writing and about your writing
knowledge--is metacognition." Metacognition means, simply,
thinking about thinking. The more you do this--reflect upon your writing
acts and knowledge--the more easily you will be able to remember what you know
and use it again in slightly different writing situations.
This kind of thinking sometimes is called "mindfulness." In mindfulness,
you are mindful of what you are doing and thinking before, during, and/or after
you write. You do not have to be mindful--to use metacognition--when you
are in the midst of actually writing, as this can sometimes interrupt yoiur
creativity or flow of writing or thinking about your subject. However,
little instances of mindfulness during writing sometimes are worth jotting down
so you can think about them more later. And being mindful of your writing
acts and knowledge before and after you write can be very helpful. This is
especially true, for example, when you face an assignment in school or on the
job to produce a type of document that you've never written before.
Mindfulness before starting means, simply, asking yourself, "What do I already
know about writing that might apply here?"
All your feelings and mindfulness about writing and
your knowledge of it are parts of our writing self. Here are some helpful
questions to ask yourself about your own writing self:
Writing Self Questions
"What writing experiences have I liked and
"Why, when did they happen, with whom, and
"Do they still affect me today when I
think about taking a writing course or doing other writing? If
so, how or why?"
"What types of writing do I seem to do
fairly well, and what kinds give me trouble?"
"Of all the types of writing there are,
school and non-school, what kinds do I feel I must learn, whether I
like them or not? What kinds, if any, do I actually love?
What kinds do I think I will always continue to dislike or hate?"
"What kinds of writing by others (my
friends, my teachers, my relatives, authors of books I've read, etc.)
do I especially admire? Why or how?"
"How are my speaking self and my writing
self alike? How do they differ?"
"Considering all of the above, what do I
think are several important parts of my writing self?"
"If I could name one visual image of my
writing self--an animal, an activity, a place, a thing, or a type of
person--what would that image be? How would I describe it in
more detail?" (For example, try to develop it as a simile or
metaphor: "My writing self is like a _____ because it is _____, _____,
and _____." For example, I, Richard--the author of this
textbook--could say that my own writing self is something like a
panther or leopard. That is because it spends a lot of time
lying around, sunning itself to keep warm, thinking about past and
future things. Then when the time to write comes, it first
slowly stalks the subject, circling it and trying to figure the best
way to get at it. Then, suddenly, it is off and running, faster
than lightning, going to the heart of the subject and making a meal of
"Then who is my writer self? Who was
it several years ago? Who might it be in several more years?"
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What are your writer strategies? They are,
basically, the methods and patterns you have learned about writing. Here
are just a few examples of the many writer strategies or writer patterns that
you may already have:
the basic pattern of writing an argument
the basic pattern of having a fair
the basic pattern of writing a work
your usual method for starting a first
the way you make a grocery list
what you know about how to revise
what you know about punctuation
what you know about grammar and spelling
how you research a subject
how you write letters to people
how you tell a story
and many others
Each of these patterns--and the many others you
know--have smaller patterns or sub-patterns within them. In short, you
already know a lot of strategies about writing, literally dozens or even,
perhaps, hundreds if you count all the little things you remember about
spelling, punctuation, etc.. Many of these strategies are patterns you
have learned from others. Some of them--especially the ways you use to put
patterns together to form your own beliefs and your own styles when you are
writing and talking--are uniquely your own: they are strategies that you have
developed. Most of your total strategies--learned or uniquely your
own--are good strategies most of the time; some don't always work as well as you
might like them. As you learn more strategies in your writing and other
college classes, some of these strategies will be ones you develop for (and
from) yourself, as you actually experience writing and try different methods.
Other strategies are those your instructor may teach you; still others,
strategies that you may learn from fellow classmates or friends, and from books
(such as a composition textbook). Some strategies you will remember well,
others only hazily, and still others not at all.
Writer strategies are, basically, the ways, methods,
and patterns you use to make writing happen. The most basic strategies
are as simple and childlike as how you hold your pen or keyboard and form
letters with it. The opposite--the most complex strategies--are the ones
you use at the cutting edge--the forward edge--of your abilities. These
are strategies you still are learning to use and that you are experiencing
intensely for the first time as you try to write a type of paper that also is
new to you.
There are many other forms of strategies.
Strategies are the clothes you wear on your basic inner self, and the tools your
basic inner self picks up, to accomplish a given task. Your writer
strategies are the clothes and tools you adopt when you write. In other
parts of your life, you have other sets of strategies: for example, a set of
shopper strategies, a set of having-fun strategies, a set each of science, math,
and gym-class strategies, a set of dealing-with-family-members strategies, and
so forth. Strategies are the patterns your basic inner self takes up, from
birth onward, to deal with life.
Here are some important and helpful questions to ask
yourself about your own writer strategies:
Writer Strategies Questions
"What are some of my general writer
strategies for academic writing in school (e.g., ignore it until the
last minute, rush through it, talk someone else into helping me,
"What are two or three other basic kinds
of writing or speaking I know how to do [e.g., list making, letter
writing, telling a good joke, telling a story, etc.], and what are one
or two basic strategies I use to write each [e.g., write the grocery
item's name, size, and quantity to buy; always start with "once upon a
time" and then keep people hanging until the very end; etc.]?"
"What are the basic steps I often use to
write an academic paper?" (Don't describe what you think
you are supposed to do; rather, describe four to eight steps of what
you actually do--e.g., place a six-pack of pop and a box of
cookies on your desk, and some new songs on your music player, worry
and sleep and worry some more, etc.)
"What are several writing methods I would
like to learn or practice more often?" (E.g., you could say
"editing step by step" or "brainstorming good stories.")
"What are several strategies I have
learned from others, and who taught them to me?" (E.g., you
could say that your dad taught you to always state your main subject
"What are a couple of negative
strategies--ones that don't work well for me?" (E.g., you could
say "skipping class the day a paper is due," "making choppy sentences
to avoid using commas," etc.)
"If I read other students' papers, what
are one or two strategies I sometimes can give to others to help them
writer more easily?"
"What are a couple of strategies that I
think the author of this textbook chapter is using in writing this
chapter? Do I think other textbooks use these strategies?
Why or why not?"
"What writer strategies or methods would I
like to learn this semester or next?"
"What writer strategies or methods would I
like to learn sometime in the next five or ten years?"
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What is your community of writers? Your direct
community is the people in your universe with whom you write, think about
writing, and learn about it. Your indirect community is the society or
culture around you that have made you into the writer that you are today and who
continue to influence your personality, interests, and ways of thinking and
speaking. There are several levels or spheres in your community of
writers, from closer to more distant, depending on your course, work situation,
and/or how willing you are to extend yourself to the world around you:
Your Writing Community
Yourself and your immediate friends or
family with whom you talk about your own writing
Your classmates in your class that has
writing assignments (or in the workplace, your colleagues with whom
you are writing)
Your writing instructor, writing tutors,
and librarians who help you (or in the workplace, your writing
supervisors and research aids)
The authors of your textbook, grammar or
research handbook, and other written aids
Professional writers whose articles,
essays, books, etc. you find enjoyable or useful
Other teachers, librarians, family
members, and friends who have influenced you as a writer in the
past, and the various authors and teachers who have influenced them
Your family, friends, neighbors, and
wider communities (e.g., the neighborhood, school, church, extended
family, etc.) that have made you into the person that you are today
and continue to affect the way you think, speak, and thus write--and
what you think about, speak about, and thus write about
Take a second look at the list. The first
three writing communities--friends, classmates, and teachers--are fairly
obvious. However, you might first ask yourself how well you are taking
advantage of these communities. In addition, you might want to consider
that the second group--numbers "4," "5," and "6"--aren't just something "out
there" or completely different from you. They, too, are part of your wider
community circle of writing. After all, they deeply affect how you learn
to write, both directly when you read them and indirectly because your
instructor, librarians, friends, family, or other people influential in your
life have brought these particular authors to your attention, and not the many
other authors that the instructors could have chosen, instead. Your
writing community is really a vast web with you at the center, those directly
influencing you right now on the nearest branches of your web, and other
influences at various distances. Each of these influences is connected to
other parts of this web of influence, too, by having similar teachers who have
chosen similar books published by similar textbook companies with similar goals,
and so forth. Just like a small town or a large, extended family, the
influences are interconnected in many ways.
A wider sphere of influence indirectly affects the
way you write, but it does so quite strongly. This is your wider community
or communities--the ones in which you have grown up, gone to school, learned to
be what you are, and influenced how you tend to think and believe. All of
these elements directly or indirectly affect not only the content of your
writing (what you choose to write about) but also the way you tend to say things
and write about them. It's just a matter of people talking about what they
happen to know from their own experiences. For example, a person from a
city or large, inner suburb is somewhat more likely to think and talk about
issues having to do with racial and ethnic differences, poverty vs. wealth, and
differences among schools. However, a person from a country, small town,
or outer suburb is somewhat more likely to think and talk about issues such as
sports, outdoor recreation, cars and trucks, and the different social classes or
types of people (like jocks vs. nerds) in one school. As a result, these
two people from two different places are more likely to have different interests
and even somewhat different ways of thinking and feeling. They are part of
what makes us each unique. And they are part of what makes each of us
slightly (and sometimes very) different writers.
Again, though, you are at the center of your own web
of writing, talking, and thinking communities. Though you can't always
control the elements of each community itself, you can control how you choose to
use what they've given you when you write and, as a result, just how good a
writer (and what type) you will become. Here are some basic
writing-community questions to consider:
Writer Community Questions
"Am I taking full advantage of the first
three obvious writing communities: friends, classmates, and
"Could I spend more time talking with my
friends, family, workplace colleagues about my own writing and sharing
it with them?"
"Could I participate more fully in class
and small group activities? Could I talk more with teachers,
tutors, and librarians?"
"Have I just taken for granted my writing
textbooks, grammar handbooks, and research guides? If so, why
are the authors of these books writing them, and why are they writing
them in the ways they have? Who are they (biographies of many
can be found by a quick, easy Web search), and how do they see
themselves fitting into their own writing communities?"
"How do professional authors whom I admire
(or whose essays, articles, or stories are examples or are of help in
research) see themselves? Who are they, and how do they perceive
their own writing communities? Why do I like (or sometimes
dislike) them? How do they help and/or hurt my own developing
"How has my past writing community
affected me as a writer? Who has helped and/or hurt me in my
development of my writer self and my writer strategies? Why or
how did these people in my past writing community act or believe as
they did? How did they perceive their own writing communities
from the center of their writing webs? How do their actions and
beliefs affect other writing communities in general?"
"What is my overall discourse community
(i.e., my larger community in which I have learned to speak, think,
and act)? To how many such communities do I belong? How do
these communities overlap, and how do they not? How has each
molded me as a person, speaker, and thinker? How has each
affected my writing content? How has each affected my writing
methods, styles, and interests?"
In conclusion, writing is for each of us a
combination of these three elements. You are--and usually feel like--a
separate, individual writing self. In short, as a writer, you are at the
center of your own universe. Secondly, there are an amazing number of
tools, methods, styles, systems, and patterns that you can use. These are
your writer strategies, of which you have very many by the time you are in
college (but with many more to learn). Third, you are not alone: you share
your writing with others in many ways, influence each other deeply in how you
write and what you will choose, and reach out to ever wider and more complex
members of the writing community around you, at which we are your own center.
If you can keep these three equations in mind--writer self, writer strategies,
and writing community--and explore them in your own writing life, then you can
adapt to almost any future writing situation more easily and quickly.
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