Getting to know the writer in me

By Omar Ali | 12/07/2017

We have a complicated relationship.

Image of man with graph depicting difficult times.This nurse finds writing painful yet satisfying; he looks forward to writing even as he procrastinates. 

Omar AliFor me, writing isn’t fun. The rough drafts are hideous, the process of rewriting endless, and the procrastination paralyzing. Its rewards are delayed—if ever realized. But even as I bemoan the process, I proceed, knowing the final product will be something I am eager to share with the world. The art of joining thoughts to create sentences that tell a story is a gift one should never squander.

Many scholars enjoy writing. Some find it relaxing, and some a hobby. I, on the other hand, can find 101 reasons not to write—too busy, too tired, and the remaining time uninspired. But here I am, writing. Why? Let me share a bit of my history. It helps explain my ambivalence toward writing and how events influenced my relationship with the discipline. 

The story begins in 1987 when my family migrated to Muncie, Indiana, USA, from Cairo, Egypt. Talk about culture shock! Although I was born in the United States, I had lived in Egypt for the previous four years, and adjusting to the States was hard. I essentially had to relearn English. I felt embarrassed that I wasn’t proficient in either English or Arabic, and I feared writing would expose that deficiency.

Ghosts of English classes past
Fast-forward to high school and my sophomore English course. I have fond memories of that class. My teacher was a bearded, mellow fellow who played rock music between periods, spoke very softly, and wore unbuttoned flannel shirts. Although he was a bit peculiar, he made that English course almost enjoyable.

At the beginning of class one day, he returned papers he had graded—to everyone but me. I was sweating bullets! Was my paper so bad that he wanted to talk to me after class? Maybe I had unintentionally plagiarized something. But then, he directed our attention to the recognition board where the “A” papers lived. My paper had made it! I was recognized for my writing!

Another significant event that influenced my view of writing occurred when I was a freshman in college—again, in English class. My teacher was a disagreeable crone who always wore dark dresses that were one size too large. Her unpleasantness was contagious. One day, I asked her why my graded paper had been returned with more red ink than black. She responded, “You don’t write at the level of a high school graduate.” I was shell-shocked! She went on to answer my question in more detail, but all I could hear was the ringing in my ears. Once again, my confidence about my writing had been deflated.

Those two events—one very positive and one very negative—contributed to my ambivalence about writing. On one hand, my work was recognition-board material. On the other, if I wrote again, my inability could be exposed. Despite that tension, I felt compelled to write.

The science of writing
This fervor led me to examine the science of writing. In appraising the literature, I found that learning to write well is no different from any other research interest. What I read led me to compile three principles that guide my writing. First, rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite some more! Be a brutal editor. Every word and sentence should be essential. If it’s not needed, delete it! Second, I learned that my main job as a writer is to make reading easier. My writing should make a reader want to read on. The end of my paper should answer the question or resolve the issue I introduced at the beginning. And, finally, I learned the importance of reading the works of gifted writers.

I credit two publications for the improvement in my writing. Although I am not a sophisticated city socialite, I discovered that The New Yorker has some of the best writers around. When I read The New Yorker, I learn by example. A book that has helped me tremendously is Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded. It does a marvelous job of breaking down the elements of writing and enabling readers to effectively examine their work.

So there it is, my story about writing, along with a little advice from a novice. As I sit in my writing zone finishing this reflection, I am joined by a specter named Self Doubt. She’s wrapped in a black dress and looks as disheveled as ever. Next to her is a bearded man with chest hair abounding who calls himself Passionate Defiance. I’m thankful that the latter is now in charge.

As I conduct a final review of this manuscript, I ask several things. Does it contain a story that readers can relate to? Did I remove all the fluff? Is this my final draft? Most importantly, did I do everything I could to make sure those who start reading it stick around for the last sentence?

Omar Ali, MSN, RN-BC, is manager of the Sigma/Chamberlain College of Nursing Center for Excellence in Nursing Education.

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