Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor. These coming weeks—as I try to resist crumpling up sheets and backspacing lines and lines of text—I’ll have this mantra on repeat in my brain.
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor. I soaked up this statement senior year of high school when I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. This was the same year I was prepping for AP exams; at the end of our 40-minute timed-writing practices, my essays would look like blackout poetry. If a sentence wasn’t perfect, I didn’t want it to be read. So when Lamott told me “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor,” I chiseled it into my skull.
Maybe it was the bellyache-inducing pleasure of reading her hilarious therapy session/confessional, or maybe it was how Lamott’s own writing and life experiences resonated with my own that motivated me to take the first substantial look at myself and my practices as a writer. This is something that all writers, especially student writers, should take more time to do. However, understanding yourself as a writer and then understanding how to work with yourself isn’t easy.
Given my own writing dilemmas, I was excited to sit down with Director of The Ohio State University Writing Center Dr. Genie Giaimo, hopeful to gain some writing insights before starting the shabby first drafts of my final papers. Bright buzzes of Coltrane bubbled in the background of 4312 Smith Lab as I entered Giaimo’s office. Well-lit, calming colors of beige and pale green cover her office walls, making it a clean and collected environment for writing and collaborating. Writing guides such as Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life and mindfulness meditation books such as those by Jon Kabat-Zinn embroider her desk. This publication combination shares Giaimo’s own background: dual majors in psychology and English, a PhD in English and copious research on writing center education and management.
“I’ve always been interested in the intersections of the humanities and texts as ways to form identity,” said Giaimo. “I look at how the social sciences think of [identity formation]. And I look at how the humanities translate [these ideas] to narrative and storytelling, or even just spoken communication.” This initial intrigue in identity and behavior surrounding writing propels Giaimo’s particular philosophy for helping writers and tutors—a philosophy that develops with new groups of students and writing center constituents.
Before joining Ohio State as Writing Center director, Giaimo worked at a community college writing center. She cites that the amount of need at community colleges is massive with student bodies consisting of many Pell recipients and first-generation college students. “Students will work over 30 hours a week in addition to being a full-time student. What you find then, with a bunch of food and housing insecurities and being the sole supporter of your family, potentially, and going to a school with very few social networks to help you, [is] that it creates a lot of tension. When students come in, it can be wild—just a lot of emotions and not necessarily the healthiest way of handling stress,” said Giaimo.
Serving as both writer center director and teacher, Giaimo recalls encountering many resilient students who struggled with a lack of outside contacts that affected their ability to do work.
“What I realized is writing support isn’t just about people’s ideas. It’s about people’s bodies, their material circumstances. It’s about their lives. And it’s on the side of supporting writers as well as supporting those who support writers,” said Giaimo.
So when Giaimo came to Ohio State in 2016, she was very interested in wellness and self-care, particularly from a tutor perspective. In her first semester, she made wellness the focus of her work with students—reading Ohio State PhD student Hillary Degner’s article "Opening Closed Doors: A Rationale for Creating a Safe Space for Tutors Struggling with Mental Health Concerns or Illnesses."
Mental health continues to be a big consideration among students, with larger and larger amounts of students having diagnosed, self-diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health concerns, acknowledged Giaimo. So as a writing center manager, she’s mindful of the questions that should be considered when helping students with a variety of needs: How do mental health concerns impact students’ work? How can the tutors support students in doing this work? How do we support those tutors supporting these students? Using these questions to drive the services of the Writing Center, Giaimo builds a culture of consciousness among the tutors, who in turn share that wellness-mindset with students looking for help on writing.
While many people may view writing centers as places where people learn to write better, Giaimo asserts that this conception is a little misleading. On average, students who visit the Writing Center only visit 1.5 times, said Giaimo. “You can’t learn how to write in 1.5 times. So when I think about why people come in, they first of all want to know if they’re good enough, and second, if they’re meeting the expectations of their instructors or if they’re ‘getting it right.’” Because students visiting the Writing Center do so with hopes of addressing mental roadblocks rather than advice on writing mechanics, much of the advice Writing Center consultants provide aims to support writers holistically—in their individual writing habits and in students’ overall wellbeing.
A Guide to Writing Wellness
- Be present. Mindfulness is the state of being aware of one’s presence in the moment. Practicing mindfulness includes acknowledging one’s emotions, thoughts and physicality, meaning there are many ways to incorporate it into your daily routine: meditation, deep breathing, doing kinesthetic meditative activities such as coloring or exercise—or writing!
- Set intentions. Giaimo says mindfulness fits perfectly in work and school habits. Start by setting intentions for certain tasks; this will help raise your awareness of the larger contexts of what you do.
- Build off what you already do. “A lot of [wellness] is behavioral—it’s not just about feeling good. It’s about amending your behavior to achieve a certain result,” says Giaimo. Rather than trying to learn yoga to relax, take something that you already do and make it a mindful action. If setting aside a couple minutes to relax stresses you out, or you end up thinking about all the other things you should be doing, use daily routines as mindfulness exercise, such as concentrating on each individual tooth as you brush them.
Developing a Writing Process
- Know yourself. If only there was one-size-fits-all writing process! Then, there’d be fewer headaches that come with the trial and error of finding what works for you as a writer. Instead, you have to resort to reflecting upon how you write. What do you like about how you currently approach writing? What doesn’t? What environment do you like to work in? What changes depending on the type of project you’re doing? What have you learned from fellow writers that you want to try out? Asking yourself questions about what you do and what you want to do will give you direction into how to develop your personal writing process.
- Set realistic goals. This includes the amount of work you take on and the time you give yourself to complete your assignments. “Too many students get in the habit of cranking out papers in 20 minutes for class. This translates into them not allowing enough time for longer assignments or research papers and not having an effective writing process,” says Giaimo.
- Set your own deadlines. In conjunction with setting realistic goals, Giaimo says writers must set their own deadlines for each step of their process. In the “real world,” people aren’t going to be chasing you down so you reach deadlines, says Giaimo. “It’s up to you to think of each step and set deadlines earlier than ones given to you.” Admitting that she has not always been the best at holding her own deadlines, Giaimo walked me through her personal writing log that she created to help organize the multiple papers she works on. It’s an Excel sheet with her projects and their deadlines for each step in the writing process: research, first draft, first revision, sharing with others, etc. Each project and its phase deadline is color coded by their “level of terror,” as Giaimo laughingly puts it.
- Switch up your writing. Most students limit their writing to what is required for their classes, which makes sense because classes are students’ primary focus. But Giaimo encourages students to try different writing engagements outside of class, such as undergraduate publications or writing outside of academia. “These [different types of writing] will help you develop practices for long-term writing that isn’t your typical class assignments,” says Giaimo. Ohio State student publications such as MOSAIC and the Journal of Undergraduate Research at Ohio State allow students opportunities to write in modes they may not normally do for class while allowing them to get their writing published.
- Revise! Plan to revise! From the enthusiasm Giaimo uses when saying this, I could tell she regularly preaches this to students. Most undergraduates, myself included, agonize over their first draft for so long that they don’t give themselves the time to revise. Use that shabby first draft to develop your ideas and set aside more time afterwards to revise, refine and format your paper.
Collaborating with Others
- Add other people throughout your writing process. Whether you need help figuring out what you can write about or want another set of eyes to proof your paper, know that you have plenty of people willing to talk about your writing with you. “Writing collaboratively isn’t something that students do enough, but in most industries, that’s what you will be doing,” says Giaimo. When creating a timeline for writing, include collaboration as a step, whether it be for idea generation or editing. Giaimo even recommends using peers as “gym buddies” to help keep you accountable for deadlines and to help think through ideas.
- Utilize professors’ office hours and the Writing Center. Both are available for students to discuss various components of their writing, and they are available at each part of the writing process. Unfortunately, students seem to shy away from them unless dire needs arise. Incorporating these readily-available resources from the start of the semester can help you get to know other writers and develop your own writing.
Practicing Healthy Ergonomics
- Keep your distance. Sit an arm’s length between yourself and the screen or book to avoid working your eye muscles too hard.
- Do 20-20-20 for vision. Every 20 minutes, shift your gaze to look at something at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. This will give your eyes a break from focusing on nearby object too much.
- Cry it out. Moistening those eyeballs is the perfect excuse to shed some tears. With intense staring comes sore, dry eyes. Not feeling emo enough to provide tears au natural? Artificial tears will be a true, cheap friend. Other ways to end your eyes’ dry spell include taking time to blink consciously for a few seconds and having a humidifier in your workspace.
- Whip out those frames. Normally opt for contacts? You may want to switch to team glasses. Contact lenses reduce your eyes’ exposure to nourishing oxygen, making them more prone to irritation. Let your eyes breathe a bit by swapping lenses for a bit.
Hands and arms
- Lighten up. Reduce the amount of force you use when writing by holding pens with the lightest grip possible. Consider using a felt-tip pen, gel pen or roller ball so that the tip glides easily over the paper.
- Put your body into it. Don’t just rely on your hands to write: initiate movement with your shoulders rather than your wrists.
- Keep it in neutral. Your body should be relaxed and at an even level. Do not plant your wrist or forearm on the desk and avoid hyperextending your fingers or wrists. Open your elbows at 90-degree angles.
Neck, back and shoulders
- Find the best seat in the house. The positioning of your body is often dependent on the table and chair you’re using, so be sure to snag a workspace that will keep your posture poised. Be on the lookout for a table at elbow height and a seat to keep your hips and knees at 90-degrees while your feet are flat on the floor.
- Stretch it out. Take breaks from sitting to walk around, do some exercise or complete some other tasks.
- Never forget that you’re an incredibly intelligent person with a big brain! That means your head weighs a lot and can put unwanted strain on your spine if not positioned properly. Use your core to sit up straight. You’re an English major, so you have every reason to look posh and proud when writing.
Using Your Resources
As a large research institution with a growing community of 60,000+, Ohio State offers a plethora of wellness resources to support students in various aspects. Specifically, The Office of Student Life runs under a philosophy of promoting balanced lifestyles through the Nine Dimensions of Wellness model, which consists of the following facets of wellness: emotional, career, social, spiritual, physical, financial, intellectual, creative and environmental. Student Life’s Student Wellness Center offers a variety of consulting services and programming to assist students, and wellness coaches are available to work with individuals and groups.
Other university wellness-centered resources include the Younkin Success Center, the Dennis Learning Center, Career Counseling and Support Services, University Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Buckeye Careers, Student-Athlete Support Services Office and Counseling and Consultation Service.
All undergraduates, graduates, faculty and staff can visit the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing for writing-relating programming, such as the Writing Center, Writing Across the Curriculum and the Writing Associates Program. The Writing Center offers free individual and group help with writing at any stage of the writing process for any member of the university community. You can schedule appointments on the Writing Center website or visit the center’s walk-in hours located in Thompson Library.
Reading Recommendations from Dr. Genie Giaimo
- How to Write a Thesis by Umberto Eco
- The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
- How to Write A Lot by Paul Sylvia
- Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success by Wendy Belcher
- Wellness and mediation books by Jon Kabat-Zinn