A Failure’s Guide to Writing in University


If you have any aspirations to be a writer, or you enjoy writing, reading, or generally tossing around ideas and theories, don’t go to university.

Before I go any further, let me preface this blog by saying: lots of people enjoy university. These people, whether by amazing chance or undying optimism, continue to find motivation and purpose despite the dozens of papers they have to write during their university existence. I, on the other hand, have had a different experience. I do have to say though, I have had some classes, papers and assignments that I have enjoyed and thrived in. Unfortunately, these tend to be more like snow days — you have to go through weeks and weeks of trudging along through mounds of snow, that are just not quite enough for schools to close, before you finally reach that limit — that ever alluring snow day. The same goes for papers. It takes a lot of boring papers before you get to the occasional nice ones.

Writing papers is a slow suicide of your ability to write. By the time I left high school, I thought I knew how to write a paper. I mean, in many ways it’s pretty simple — come up with a driving statement that can be broken into three different points, and then write. It seems simple enough, but somehow, in college, I started to give up on this. The usual formula of the essay just didn’t cut it. It bored me, and likewise bored my reader — or should have. I have been a little surprised sometimes at how the most cookie-cutter essays I have written have still gotten me by in university.

Regardless, formula bored me, so I scrapped it. I had a couple good classes that were loose enough to allow me to step out of the normal “analyze rhetorical strategies in a book you don’t care about” and was able to try something different. So I went for blogging. I’ve gotten used to writing these blogs and have developed a bit of a system that feels comfortable. And knowing I have a much easier time writing blogs than I do writing papers, I decided to try it. So, rather than come prepared for rigidity and analytical arguments, I relaxed. I had fun. I let myself write in a way that felt natural. This worked really well on a couple select papers (well, I can only think of one that I used it for. I have yet to get back my grade for my second attempt at this). But I hit a wall with this too.

The problem I’m now facing is that I really don’t want to write anymore. I’m tired of reading, tired of writing, tired of blogs, tired of papers — tired of it all. Instead of feeling like I’m actually getting anywhere with my writing, I just feel that all the guidelines I used to use have just fallen apart. I’ve watched as I made terrible sentences in emails and then just left them because, frankly, I didn’t care. When you spend hours upon hours of your life fixing your writing so that you can get good grades, bad sentence construction in an email doesn’t even warrant the effort.

So, here I am. I have papers to write that I really don’t care about writing at all. The world doesn’t need one more paper on a work of eighteenth Century literature. And, to add to my lack of care, I’m not even sure I know how to write well anymore. I’m somewhere in between recklessness and hopelessness, and don’t know what to do. But, as the saying goes: “desperation breeds ingenuity.” And I am desperate. Perhaps the fact that I am boring the world with a blog about my paper-writing speaks to how dull this all really is. I mean, who writes about writing papers? But, I have to remember I’m writing a “guide”, so I’ll explain what I intend to do now, if it’s at all interesting.

Since I’m so bored of words, of which I seem to have far too many in this blog, I’ve decided to step away from the way I usually write and take a stab at trying to build a visual map of my paper instead. Having said this, I realize it really doesn’t seem that revolutionary. I mean, authors have been mapping out novels and other books for years, so why wouldn’t I? But, I suppose that’s half the point. I’ve decided being an academic is not for me. However, I’m in university and I still have two more years worth of papers to write. So, I’m going to throw the academic out the window and try my hand at being a writer — an author. I don’t mean that in a pompous or noble sense. I mean, I’d love to be an author someday, but I’m certainly not there yet and probably won’t be any time soon. But I do think there’s something valuable to stepping away from the formula of writing, and asking myself: How can I make this interesting for me? And, in answer to that question, one of the first things that comes into my head is: make it something else. Make it different.

As a result, I’ve decided to try something new. Try visual. Try pictures. Try pieces of paper spread all over a desk. Start with fragments and allow them to fail to relate to each other. Embrace the mess of writing and let the scraps fill an empty space. And then, once you have a perfect mess in front of you, try to put it together. Figure out what threads and ideas are pulling the pieces together and begin to stitch the fragments into a paper. The result will be… well, I don’t know yet. It could be failure. If so, that’s alright too. I’ve only ever failed one paper in my life, and it didn’t kill me. I just wrote a new one. People are little like teacups. It’s our failures that shape us — that push us into a form, bend out the handle, and scoop out a hole in the centre of us. All our successes do is to add the shiny glaze on the outside of the cup. Successes may look pretty, but it’s our failures that make us who we are.

So, bored reader, if you are you are still reading, and for some odd reason found my stories about writing papers remotely engaging, here are some encouragements I have for surviving papers in university:

1) A bored writer makes a bored reader. If you’re finding yourself bored writing a paper, your reader will probably find themselves bored too. And though good writing may still warrant an average grade, it’s not ideal. So, find a way to make the paper interesting for yourself. Pick a topic that you’ll enjoy. And if you hate them all, suggest one to your teacher, if they allow that. And if they don’t, take the topic you hate least and play with it until you find something interesting about it. And, if all else fails and you absolutely hate them all, at least make the process of writing an adventure.

2) Take risks. Don’t attempt stream-of-consciousness writing in a university paper — that’s not the kind of risk I’m talking about. But try something different. Don’t be afraid to experiment and break out of the box, even if it’s just your own box. University might seem like a scary place to experiment with your writing, but don’t let it scare you. What better place to practice than when you have doctors (that can’t save people’s lives) reading your work, and giving you feedback because they’re paid to? In some ways I think university is really the best place to take risks with writing. So try different things. Push your writing in ways you haven’t done before and mix up your method. Chances are you’ll come out of university with a much better handle on what works best for you.

3) Let your voice be heard. Too often I’ve put my voice on the back burner and have opted instead to let the academic in me speak. I use big words, repeat myself for emphasis, talk about things I don’t care about, and work myself into arguments that are as empty as the daunting page I’m trying to fill. Don’t do that. Be intelligent. Be analytical. But most of all, be you. People want to hear you, and you have things to say, so say them. Again, sometimes I can almost be afraid to let my voice come through, as if it doesn’t have a place in the fancy halls of university academia. But why shouldn’t my voice be heard while I’m in university? Shouldn’t I be able to let me show through? I almost fear that if I go too long without letting my voice be heard, it’ll soon learn to be silent out of habit. I don’t want to do that, especially since my voice is the only one I have.

4) Have fun. Writing a paper, fun? I know it may seem like a stretch, but it’s worth a try. I mean, look at writers like Coleridge or De Quincy — they knew the secret of being happy while you write, and decided opium was the way to do that. Please, don’t try opium to enhance your university writing. I don’t think that works well. But, do find a way to have fun and enjoy writing. Make tea, go for a walk, talk to a friend, draw. Do something that will either help you break out of the mundane task of writing (as long as you come back to it eventually, feeling happier and more motivated) or do something that will let you think about your paper and work it out in a way that makes it feel fun. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” — and we all know dull boys don’t write good papers.

And, that’s my “failure’s guide to writing in university”. I think I could basically sum this all up as attempts to try to keep myself from getting bored and from getting stuck in the dusty cobwebs of university writing. University really isn’t all that bad. In fact, I almost enjoy it. It’s that necessary adversary that encourages me to fight back and strengthens me in the process. I just need to find ways to make the journey interesting and different. So, as a final encouragement:

5) Don’t let university be something that’s done to you. Be the doer. Shape your own experience in a way that helps you learn the best and keeps you most engaged.