Introduction to Professional Writing

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Binghamton University course Introduction to Professional Writing, visit You’ll find sample assignments, a syllabus, and other information about the course.

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Heart and Spine

What is the heart of a writing class, and what is its spine?

When I think of “heart” as a metaphor, I think of a center, the pivot, a beat. When I think of “spine” as a metaphor, I think of the actor’s through-line.

Wikipedia has a nice, short entry on the idea of “through-line,” which Stanislavski proposed as the spine that links a characters objectives in the many discrete scenes of a play. That through-line pushes the character forward in the narrative. I’m not an actor. I don’t know how concrete the through line has to be. I imagine an actor conceives of the character’s objective in a given scene fairly concretely. It’s hard to act an abstraction, after all.

So, for example, Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, like many of the characters Bogart favored, lives a lonely authority that comes from a code, a code that both maintains his honor and separates him from others. The crooks and con artist dissemble to survive. They delude themselves that the big score is a rumor away. The cops act in dull increments, hemmed in by the roles they play.

Everything Rick does manifests his through line: the need maintain his particular code. For the psychologically minded actor, I’m sure there’s another layer to be intimate with. Memories of a father who abandoned the family? A terrible loss for which Sam feels responsible? Who knows. That’s why I admire actors. They do know.

We don’t need to be actors to know what a through line is. We ask ourselves why we make the same mistake, or push people away, or what have you– pick your poison. Your therapist or friend or partner or some anyone fixing to get you, someone who wants to let you have it, will tell you why all of these little actions, this tiny discrete things (forgetting to call, forgetting the birthday) are sparks thrown off by the through line.

I am much clearer on the heart that beats in a writing classroom. For me, the heart is the set of activities, usually pretty simple ones, that lend themselves to greater complexity as the tasks get more difficult, but are rather limited and simple when you get down to it. A way to read, a way to rewrite, a way to produce text, a habit of attention, a few crafty techniques. The spine, the through line, that extends over the course of the term, that’s another story. I suppose that the “course objectives” and “outcomes” are expressions of a spine. But that might be like saying the score is the game. It is both true and not enough at the same time.

So, your class: what is heart? What is the spine?

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Non-stop Writing; Desertification; Refuge

Many, many years ago, I felt hopelessly blocked, unable to write. Not blocked on a project, but thwarted when it came to writing at all. Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones simplified things for me. “All” I had to do was write for a fixed amount of time, consistently, over a period of time. Of course, it’s a lot harder than it looks. Even today, finding ten minutes can seem impossible in days filled with minutes that are thrown away. The task seems big, bigger than than the time.

What makes non-stop writing useful a little shift in emphasis that means everything: it’s not about filling space, it’s about filling time. All our writing lives, or that part of writing lives when we are taught and learn, we are told how long something ought to be– words or pages. That’s the second question every student asks about a new writing assignment– “How long is it.” The first is “When is it due?”

Non-stop writing answers the “How long” question with “It’ll be as long as whatever writing for ten minutes non-stop will be.” I can always tell when students I’ve asked to practice the technique find that time an uncomfortable committment, because all of the entries in their notebooks are a paragraph long, or two thirds of a page long. Those who make the ten minutes a habit tend to settle into one and a half to three pages in ten minutes, depending on the urgency of their writing.

In a way, the feeling about finding those ten minutes is the inverse to the basic principle of the task. The task says, “All you have to do is write for ten minutes,” which seems simple, and slight. But psychic time is like feeling a tooth with your tongue on the inside of your mouth: it seems enormous. In psychological terms, being asked to write for ten minutes can feel like being asked to write twenty pages.

Non-stop writing helped for many reasons, reasons that others, like Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg explain so well. But it helped me in two simple ways. I developed the confidence to know that whatever the prose turned out to be like, I could, on demand, produce it. Within the inner landscape of writing that had become harsh, barren, and unforgiving, nonstop writing helped me find a place I could return to, again and again, small lush place, where the words both mattered and didn’t matter at the same time.

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It All Counts

Often, if you write, you struggle with time. Something that helps me is to remember that it all counts. By that I mean, all of the writing you do, whether it’s taking notes, or free writing, or organizing your files, rewriting paragraphs or reading– all of it counts. True, you’ll have projects that have deadlines and goals. There will be times when you need to change the way you work to suit the deadline, to finish. Most of your writing life won’t be that though. It will be showing up at your desk, making choices, keeping committments that for a good deal of time are only to yourself. You’ll arrive at the point– a point you want to reach again and again if you continue to write– when it’s time to finish. In the meanwhile, your goal is to show up for yourself and you work. Always have something to do. Be generous in how you understand what that is.

I read an interview with Grace Paley in the Village Voice 25 years ago. One exchange stuck. The interviewer asked her what she’d done that day and she replied that she’d written ten pages and all of it was “crap.” I paraphrase, but the sentiment is what matters. If you’re going to be the kind of person who devotes time to producing something your proud of, you also have to be the kind of person who’s willing to devote your time to more than a few crappy pages.

It all counts.

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Grammar Incognito

Since I use Ponsott and Deen’s The Common Sense in class, I get to use their chapters about sentences, grammar, and puncution . Like the folks say t it’s baked right in. That’s important because in another class I teach, a first year academic writing class, we don’t have much time to talk about sentences and the way we talk about grammar and punctuation is in the context of corrected a essay. Ponsott and Deen, however, talk about “grammar power.” They offer students the view that knowledge of sentences, grammar and punctuation (they make very clear distinctions, but it all rolls into the same sensibility) gives them authority over their writing. A significant number of college students I meet do not experience that power.

Ponsott and Deen, especially early in the semester, ask a class to rewrite a colleague’s sentence, then listen to them. They aren’t arbitrary teacher produced sentences, but sentences produced by students as part of drafting. In a way, all that grammar power grows with the experience of something novice writers do not take for granted: you can rewrite a sentence many ways, and rewritng it an be the path to clarity of thought and expression. But it helps to be able to recognize, or identity, a few common features that go a long way towards helping you know where you might interven ein a sentence to see it differently.

When they hear each others versions of a sentence, of course, right away, they see that a colleague’s sentence can be expressed in sixteen different ways. We prove that together. And as we do it more, and listen more to the sentences we make, we become tuned into what exactly makes one different than another, and how some express a nuance that the original sentence did not.

Go figure.

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The Small Axe

There’s a song that’s been going through my head the  last week as a new academic year began: Bob Marley and The Wailers’ Small Axe.

They sing “You are the big tree/we are the small axe/ready to cut you down…”

As I plan another year’s classes, I’m more persuaded than ever that what I teach is “the small axe.”

At the heart of my writing life are a pattern of activities I return to depending on the stage of the work. They come down to cerain things that help me get the work done at various stages: days of free writing, times I review journals and search for lines, times I review poems to see where the poem I meant to write is so I can take away the rest. There are the things I do when I’m lost and the things I do when I’m finishing up, the things I do when I’m waiting, and the things I do to maintain momentum.

I’ve become extremely economical about the choices I make, especially since I can confuse myself so easily. Ingenious solutions take on a life of their own; I am susceptible to fads of my own making.

When it comes down to it, I’ve learned that the small axe, used with persistence, striking at the right spot, gets the big tree to fall. When I teach, what I want to do is teach students to craft a small axe and use it.

Here’s the song:

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