This topic was on my mind when I recently attended a talk to hear Ta-Nehisi Coates talk about his new book, Between the World and Me. At the talk, he repeatedly mentioned his editor and the work they did, together, on multiple drafts of his book. In Coates’ assessment, his first draft couldn’t even be considered a book. This is an author who was won multiple awards for his journalism, and his book recently won the National Book Award. Is anyone calling him a bad writer? No, they’re not. As an editor and writing consultant, I appreciate his candor.
Academia is different though. Heavens forbid you admit you need help, or that you don’t understand something. We have created an image of the solitary scholar, toiling away at their work, generating groundbreaking ideas all by their lonesome. Shame on us, because we know better. We all know that we present at workshops and conferences. We know we participate in writing groups. We know we knock on our colleagues’ doors and ask them to take a look at our manuscript before we send it out. At the beginning of our books and articles, we thank all the people who offered their intellectual support. None of this is a secret.
We seek this support because writing is hard work, and people involved in challenging professions generally have support. They also continue to cultivate their skills. CEOs have coaches and mentors. Athletes have coaches who are by their side every moment (have you ever seen an Olympian perform without their coach nearby?). Lawyers continue their professional development throughout their careers. Musicians and dancers attend master classes. Yet, academics believe that after graduate school they are fully formed experts not only in their subject matter but also in the craft of writing. What hubris.
This hubris forces academics to either hide the fact that they are asking for help or not ask at all. This is especially the case for scholars who might already be marginalized within the academy. They’re worried that if they admit they need support they’ll be exposed as unqualified. Asking for help is not a red flag that you’re bad at something! It can simply mean you are working to become even better at something you’re already good at, like those Olympians I mention above.
My clients come to me with very different needs. I may encounter a client with excellent grammar who needs assistance communicating complex ideas. Another client might craft beautiful sentences, but can’t make heads or tails of a style sheet. A different client may be writing her first book after focusing on articles, and needs to make sense of this new style of writing. The list goes on. This is part of the reason why I describe my services very broadly as “writing support” or “writing consulting” rather than just editing. I want to communicate that there are different forms of assistance one can seek, and that assistance is not necessarily remedial.
Are there bad writers? Sure, people can be bad at anything. One thing that all writers have in common, however, is that they all have the potential to become even better writers. So instead of lamenting about the bad writers or passing judgment on those who ask for help, let’s work on creating an environment of mutual respect and encouragement where we empower each other to ask for what we need without shame or fear.