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Affective Meets Effective: Emotion and Academic Writing

Posted by on Monday, December 8, 2014 in News, Uncategorized, Writing Studio Blog.

By Faith Barter

English Writing Fellow for Fall 2014, Vanderbilt Writing Studio

As someone who thrives on the semester-long relationships built through classroom teaching, I began my semester as a Writing Studio Fellow with some trepidation. Would I spend the semester making tentative connections with clients I would never see again? It seemed like an enterprise that was bound to be less personal, less fulfilling than teaching. Instead, as I reflect on my semester at the Writing Studio, I am struck by the trust our clients place in us. What is it about our writing, I wonder, that makes us feel so exposed, and how can we as consultants mobilize that emotional investment to better serve our clients?

These questions resurfaced for me several times over the semester. At both sessions of Dinner & a Draft, the group discussion lingered on the emotional attachment that we feel to our words. As Dr. David Weintraub and Dr. Amy Non shared their writing processes, each group of students gravitated toward a discussion of editing. One after another, students described the challenge of cutting their own words. As they spoke, they often relied on metaphors of embodiment, using words like “painful” to explain the emotional dimension of revision.

It has become somewhat passé for scholars to write about the affective aspect of academic writing and composition (note that I reflexively switched from “emotional” to “affective” as I turned to a discussion of scholarship). After a spate of articles from the late 1980s and early 1990s, most of the current scholarship on the psychology of writing concerns either managing writer’s block or writing as therapeutic practice. In fact, many composition scholars treat emotion as something to overcome, characterizing emotion as being in fundamental tension with the intellectual reasoning required of the academic writing process.[1]

I notice that clients feel this tension in the work they bring to the Writing Studio. I often hear clients say things about their writing like, “I really love this section, but I’m worried it’s not making sense.” Rather than dismissing their affective responses in favor of pure logic, I find that such comments are often opportunities for productive work. Asking why a client is attached to a particular section can yield information that takes a session in a new and fruitful direction. Students often feel most attached to ideas that are complex and exciting but inchoate. What they register as emotional attachment may signal their awareness that they are “onto something” that they simply have yet to unpack.

I also look for opportunities to mobilize a client’s emotional investment toward later self-help. Asking questions about the affective or emotional dimensions of writing can help move a client toward self-awareness about how her emotional responses animate or inhibit her writing process in general. Although anxiety and writer’s block are common challenges, there are other writers for whom the challenge is in the “taking away,” or cutting existing words. If a client is aware of this tendency, she can build strategies into the writing process that give her “permission” to cut her own words—for instance by moving deleted text to a separate file instead of erasing it outright.

Rowena Murray and Sarah Moore offer the following advice to academic writers: “We’re not suggesting that you tangle yourself up in psychotherapeutic babble about writing or become self-indulgent about the processes that it requires. We are, however, asserting that if you ignore the emotional aspects of the act of writing, you miss out on an important opportunity to become a more self-aware and reflective writer.”[2] I find this advice useful for writing consultants, as well. Our clients come to us with rich, complicated, and diverse forms of emotional investment in their academic writing.  We ought to be sensitive to these differences, of course; but we also ought to be willing to mobilize our clients’ emotional investments toward a productive dialogue about writing.

[1] In The Handbook of Academic Writing: A Fresh Approach (2006), Rowena Murray and Sarah Moore describe this tension as “The logic versus emotion paradox” (10-11).

[2] Ibid., 11.