National Writing Project

On the Experience of Writing Politics, Language, and Culture: Critical Look at School Reform

By: Joe Check
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3
Date: 2004

Summary: Joseph Check describes how, by suspending his daily judgment about the quality of what he wrote, he freed himself to simply produce.


See the related book review by Marcie Wolfe.

Editors' note: The Quarterly editors asked Joseph Check to write a few words about the experience of writing and publishing a book.

A funny writing thing happened on the way to this book. Not funny ha-ha but funny strange. Used to writing articles, I struggled to find a writing process that would work for a book. Like a sprinter forced to come up with a strategy for running a marathon, at first I failed. I tried a certain number of hours every day, a certain number of words every day, writing the easy parts first—nothing clicked. But during my struggle for process, I discovered the funny thing, and this led me to a strategy.

I discovered that during and for a few hours after a writing session I had wildly inaccurate ideas about whether what I'd just produced was to keep or to throw away. Often I'd be sure that I had unsnarled some great knotty secret in my clear-as-ice prose, only to read my explanation the next day and find it virtually incomprehensible. Other mornings I would slog and plod to produce a paragraph or two of what seemed like pure dreck, only to find later in the week that these paragraphs were real "keepers."

This happened so consistently that it began to dictate an approach to writing, a kind of process-in-absentia. If my heat-of-the-moment judgements about quality were unreliable, then there was no way to tell, at the time, whether I was doing well or badly. So I just had to do, and suspend judgements till later—sometimes much later. It was not till the next day, or the next week, or even the next month that I could make any sort of reliable judgement about quality. This freed me to just produce. Suspending judgement was especially helpful on days when I felt totally uninspired and humdrum. It meant that slogging was okay because who knew how it would come out? Not me, certainly. And that insight let me complete my own personal writing marathon.

About the Author Joseph Check is with the Boston Writing Project at the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMB) and is a facilitator of the National Writing Project Professional Writing Retreats. He chairs the department of educational leadership in the Graduate College of Education at UMB and also directs the Leadership in Urban Schools doctoral program.

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