Getting out of your writing "trenches"

One of my favorite things to teach every semester is Concept 5.3, “Habituated Practice Can Lead to Entrenchment,” from Linda Alder-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s revolutionary text on how we view writing: Naming What We Know. I love teaching this concept because, every year, I see so many students struggling to learn how to write at the college level, or how to apply what they already know to new situations. This chapter is often the “a-ha!” moment for so many of my kiddos.

“But wait,” I hear you say, “Isn’t practice good for writing?” In some ways, yes. But in others, no. Let me explain…

In Concept 5.3, the writer and scholar Chris M. Anson asserts,

“When writers’ contexts are constrained and they are subjected to repeated practice of the same genres, using the same processes for the same rhetorical purposes and addressing the same audiences, their conceptual framework for writing may become entrenched, ‘solidified,’ or ‘sedimented.’ When this happens, [writers] may try to apply that framework in a new or unfamiliar writing situation, resulting in a mismatch between what they produce and the expectations or norms of their new [writing] community” (p. 77).

Lemme break that down a bit. What Anson is trying to say is that when you practice writing in a particular style for a particular purpose (be it a five-paragraph essay for a standardized test, or a reading response that rephrases the question as a statement) for a long time, without practicing other styles or methods or ways of thinking, you become “entrenched” in these methods. The particular format you’re always writing in becomes “‘solidified’ or ‘sedimented’,” so that when you encounter a new writing situation or want to change genres (from writing an essay to crafting a new short story), you come at the new situation with the old framework and your writing can often feel clunky, stuffy, or like it just “doesn’t work.”

And it’s at this stage that I see several of my students toss their hands in the air with an “I can’t write. I’m not a good writer” and insist their problem is ability rather than what it actually is - they’re applying the wrong framework.

So, what can you do to get out of your “trenches”? To get out of those areas where you’re bogged down in your writing and finally become so frustrated that you shout “I can’t write”?

(Spoiler alert: You can write. Everyone can. If you know how to apply the proper framework to your writing task.)

Below, I’ve compiled a series of five tips that I think can help you overcome some of your writing “trenches.” If you have any other suggestions, or would like to share some of your own “trenches,” feel free to leave a comment below. I’d love to get feedback on these strategies! And to help you if you’re currently stuck in a writing “trench.”

5 Quick Tips on Getting Out of Writing Trenches

  1. Brainstorm. One of the best ways to begin to get out of your trench is to focus more on the content of what you’re trying to write than the structure of the writing. The organization and structure can come later. Right now, focus on the important information and how those pieces of information connect together. You can use a bubble map or a flow chart for this, if it helps you to generate more ideas.

  2. Begin a rough draft. But don’t worry about starting at the beginning. You can start your draft wherever you like - the end, the middle, or the beginning. I personally like starting with my body paragraphs first, or the meat of my short stories, and then going back and adding in the introduction or conclusions later.

  3. Read examples of other texts within the genre you are working in. Got a pesky five-paragraph essay for school? Are you persuading or giving a narrative? How are other texts within that same genre, and for that same purpose, written? What sorts of things do they focus on? How do they organize their information? What kinds of details are they adding? How are their ideas connected together? You’ll want to make sure you look at several examples. What is a common thread, structure-wise, throughout all the examples? What do they do differently? How can your text join this “conversation” that these texts are having?

  4. The first step in getting out of a “trench” is recognizing that you’re in one. Do all of your writings pretty much look the same? What can you do to mix things up a bit? You might want to try brainstorming again here.

  5. Use what you know. Just because your writing structure has “sedimented,” doesn’t mean you can’t use it as scaffolding to climb to new genres and styles. What are some of the things other genres are doing that you already know how to do? How can you take what you already know and apply it elsewhere?

  • On a personal level, when I first started college, I felt like I wanted every professor to give me a template for the style of writing they wanted in their classroom. When one professor finally did give me a template, I tried to apply it down to the letter within my other classes. But in those classes, I wouldn’t get as high of scores as I did in the class where I had gotten the template. At first, I was so confused as to why. But then I began looking at some of the other writings from other students from those classes, and I began looking at how texts were written in those fields… and then I looked back at my template. I was still able to use my template as a guide, but decided I didn’t need to stay within its rigid structure. I could branch out and add new ideas here and there. And once I did that, my scores began going up.

So, just because you have a framework that you’re working within, doesn’t mean you have to “throw the baby out with the bath water,” as they say. But rather, look at how your skills and knowledge can transfer from one area into another.

Let’s chat! What are some of your writing “trenches”? And how are you overcoming them? Or how do you plan to overcome them?

Adler-Kassner, L., &; Wardle, E. A. (2016). Naming what we know: Threshold concepts of writing studies. Logan: Utah State University Press.