Post Academic

Why Do So Many People Think They Can Write? Part Two

Posted in Transfer Your Skills by Caroline Roberts on February 9, 2011
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionWow. I had no idea that what I thought was a one-off screed would resonate with so many of you. Clearly, a lot of us have dealt with those who think can bust out a novel on the spot. One commenter made the excellent note that people can write, but not all of them can write well.

I thought about the comment again this past weekend. I was on a business trip. Our tasks require an intense amount of teamwork. When it’s not time for me to do my part of the task, which is based in writing and research, I want to pitch in and help out everyone else. I always feel guilty if I’m not pulling my weight.

I was doing the usual and pitching in, but one of my bosses took me aside and gave me advice that I’ve never heard before:

You don’t always have to pitch in. The [other members of the team] are doing what they’re doing because they’re good at it. You can rest so you can keep doing well. Don’t feel guilty–if they need help, they’ll ask for it.

So I took a break and got out of the way. I admit that i felt guilty, but my boss was right. When someone needed help lifting a recliner (long, long story), they asked me.

When it came time for me to do my thing, I was rested and ready. The people I was working with trusted me to do my job, and that was a beautiful feeling. I had the client’s goals, I had my materials, and I was set. That doesn’t mean that other members of the team didn’t give me feedback, but their feedback wasn’t based on the fact that they thought they could write as well as me. Instead, they were offering feedback from their own business perspectives. I freely admit that I don’t agree with all the feedback, but it’s way easier to handle constructive criticism when you know that the person giving the critique obviously thinks you’re capable.

Photo of Herman Mankiewicz, Orson Welles, and John Houseman during the writing of “Citizen Kane,” 1938. Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

I usually ask, “Why do so many people think they can write?” when someone tries to interfere with my work. Adjusting a message is one thing, but, when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts of writing, the putting together of words, people need to back up. Writers know what they are doing, and we’ll let the rest of the team do what they’re good at in return. As the peeling cheek writer said, just because a person can write doesn’t mean they can write well.

For students who think they know all there is to know about writing because they can spell, you can tell them that good writing is all about training, practice and effort. You learn writing the same way you learn any other skill. Sure, a student might get lucky and pull something out of his or her rear end in under an hour, but that is highly unlikely.

Warn your students before class that, if they’re not spending time on their papers, they won’t get an A. And if they don’t have the time, they shouldn’t take the class. Period.

In the workplace, the situation is a little tougher and requires diplomacy. Some people who think they can write want to be helpful, even if they are misguided. (like me trying to “help” people who knew what they were doing) Other people are exceptionally good at one thing, so they assume they are good at your job, too. Tactfully remind them that when it’s their turn to do their job, they can go nuts. But, until then, they need to let you do your job — which is writing or teaching people how to write.

2 Responses to 'Why Do So Many People Think They Can Write? Part Two'

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  1. Mackie Blanton said,

    This recent finding has been in the news for about two weeks now:


    I believe that this bit of news regarding the new student is related to your observation about people who believe they can write, or even write well. Since about 1976, American students will drop a course that demands academic rigor; or refuse to do most of the work and settle for a D or C. Their parents have failed them (They do not read to them), their high schools have failed them (Honors courses are merely way stations to separate the riff raff into “regular” English). And these kids enroll in college for 15 to 18 credit hours a semester, all the while holding down two to three part-time jobs, to make pocket change. They do not read. They claim to have no time to read.

    On another related note, many people believe that they can teach foreigners English just because English is their native tongue. So in foreign lands, they teach English on the side — and teach it poorly — and make good pocket change. So many people believe that they can write and teach English because they speak English. Weird, isn’t it?

  2. Caroline said,

    I never thought about the impact of teaching English abroad. I’ve known a few people who did it, but they never mentioned the extent of their training. You are correct … being able to speak English doesn’t mean you can teach it. It’s proof that the old adage “fake it until you make it” only leads to problems.

    PS–Thanks for the link! I’ve seen a lot of press about “Academically Adrift,” but I hadn’t seen that particular article yet.

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