(How) do you talk about writing with students?

by Andrea R. Olinger and Alexandra Cavallaro

How often do you talk to your students about your own writing processes, writing habits, and the different kinds of writing you do?

It may seem obvious, but talking about your own work as a writer—and about how particular types of writing they’re producing may be similar to what you read and write—can help students better understand the value and workings of writing in your field and, perhaps, develop more complex processes of their own.

A number of U.S. university writing programs have interviewed faculty members about these sorts of topics and posted their videos online. Some interviews cover what (usually undergraduate) students should know about writing in a particular major; others explore the different processes, practices, and audiences of a particular professor. We’ve described a few of them below and also listed videos by discipline.

You could play one of these videos for your students or use them as jumping off points for your own conversations. Consider the following questions to get you started:

  • What are your writing processes for different tasks? (When and where do you work? How do you block out time? What kinds of responses do you seek out as you write? How many drafts do you typically write? How do you revise? When and how do you edit?)
  • How do you work with others? (Do you collaborate with different people at different stages? What roles do different people play? What sorts of challenges have you encountered?)
  • How do you adjust your writing for different audiences and genres (e.g., for different granting agencies, different journals, or different kinds of talks)?
  • How do you use sources? (How do you organize your research and references? What system do you use to keep track of quotes and paraphrases in your notes? How do you make sure your own voice comes through amid all the sources in your writing? When and why do you use quotes vs. paraphrases?)

A Few Noteworthy Video Series
The University of California, Davis’s Scientists Discuss Writing features interviews with six scientists in fields ranging from food science to physics. The scientists discuss topics like how they write research articles, grants, and pieces for wider audiences. A few pieces of each person’s writing are also available.

  • Don’t miss: In the Grant Writing section, physiologist Helen Raybould states that she enjoys grant writing because it makes her think about what she’d like to find out five or ten years down the line. To help graduate students figure this out, she asks her magic wand question: “if you were granted three wishes, what are the three questions that, if you knew the answer to, would really change the way you thought about this system?”

Iowa State University’s Professional Connection interviews thirteen engineering professionals about how they communicate at work. The (approximately) five-minute videos cover topics from interviews to email to teamwork.

  • Don’t miss: In The Resume: Part 2, Emily Kinser, Competitive Analysis Engineer for IBM, describes the importance of incorporating job ad language into a resume so that the resume will be retrieved in hiring managers’ keyword searches.

The University of Richmond’s Writing in the Disciplines site incorporates interviews with professors in a variety of fields (from accounting to film studies to psychology) into webpages for undergraduates in different disciplines. (These webpages often include descriptions of common genres, advice from professors, and examples of student work with instructors’ comments).

  • Don’t miss: English literature professor Elizabeth Outka suggests ways to develop a research paper: start with close reading before moving to secondary materials. “If you start with all the critics,” she says, “sometimes…you can feel like there is no room for your particular voice.”

Stanford University’s Writing Matters: Faculty Edition features short interviews with ten STEM faculty members reflecting on the importance of writing in their fields. They describe the role writing plays in the production of scientific knowledge, while also critically reflecting on the importance of revision, writing for different audiences, and the role of narrative in crafting and communicating scientific arguments.

  • Don’t miss: In 2010, Stanford also produced a series called “How I Write” that contains detailed interviews with writers in a variety of fields (from English, Drama, and History to Materials Science, Human Biology, and Behavioral Science) reflecting on “the nuts and bolts, pleasures and pains, of all types of writing.” The writers offer in-depth reflections on their writing processes. Although most of the videos are no longer working, the transcripts offer a rich record of the discussions.

Videos by Discipline