Failure to write

A group of students wrote something for me at the beginning of the semester. They were scientists and their lecturer wanted to see how well they could write so if they needed to develop their writing, we could start early in the year and not wait until they had submitted their first assessed assignments. Much of the writing was not very good and the lecturer was determined to arrange writing classes as soon as possible. I decided I’d try to talk to the students before we made decisions to see what I could find out about their experiences of writing.

I was surprised when most of the students told me they hadn’t done their best and I wondered why. Some of them, it was clear, knew that it wasn’t an assessed piece of work so they didn’t spend any time on it. For others, it wasn’t so straightforward. They had little confidence in their ability to write and didn’t really want to be shown up. It reminded me of John Holt’s How Children Fail (Holt, 1965). In the book, he looks at the many strategies children use to avoid learning. One strategy is to avoid trying. They simply do not take part in an activity in which they might not succeed as failure is easier to accept if you don’t participate. I wondered if these science students were the same. They had little confidence in their ability to write, but they didn’t want anyone to see their best writing if it would be bad. So they didn’t produce it.

Here are a few relevant quotations:

Worrying about the mistakes they might make is as bad – no worse – than worrying about the mistakes they have made. Thus, when you tell a child that he has done a problem wrong, you often hear a sigh of relief. He says, ‘I knew it would be wrong.’ He would rather be wrong, and know it, than not know whether he was wrong or not (p. 52).

Note the danger of using a child’s concept of himself to get him to do good work. We say, ‘You are the kind of sensible, smart, good, etc., etc. boy or girl who can easily do this problem, if you try.’ But if the work fails, so does the concept. If he can’t do the problem, no matter how hard he tries, then, clearly, he is not sensible, smart, or good (p. 55).

Incompetence has one other advantage. Not only does it reduce What others expect and demand of you, it reduces what you expect or even hope for yourself. When you set out to fail, one thing is certain – you can’t be disappointed. As the old saying goes, you can’t fall out of bed when you sleep on the floor (pp. 68-69).

John Holt’s work was with children, but Howard Becker (1983, pp. 576-577) wrote something similar about graduate students and members of academic staff. He was running a writing workshop and had asked the members of the group about how they wrote, and they described some strange strategies they used:

I went on with my interpretation. What my fellow participants were describing were,  from one point of view, neurotic symptoms. Viewed sociologically, however, they were magical rituals. According to Malinowski (1948, 25-36), people perform such rituals to influence the result of something they are doing over which they think they have no rational means of control. If you can’t handle it rationally, you use magic charms, which at least dispel your anxiety, even if they do not really affect the result.

So I asked the class: what are you so afraid of not being able to control rationally that you have to use all these magical spells and rituals? I’m no Freudian, but I did think that there would be some resistance to talking about this. There wasn’t. On the contrary, people spoke easily and at length. They feared – I am summarising the long discussion that followed – two things. One was that they would not be able to organize their thoughts, that the whole thing would be a big, confusing chaos that would drive them mad. They spoke feelingly about the other fear: that what they wrote would be “wrong” and that (unspecified) people would laugh at them. That seemed to account for more of the ritual. One person, for instance, wrote on legal-sized, yellow, ruled tablets, but always on the second page. Why? Well, she said, if anyone walked by, you could pull down the top, unwritten-on page and cover what you had been writing so the passerby couldn’t see.

Many of the things people did ensured that what they had written could not be taken for a “finished” product. If it wasn’t finished, no one could laugh at it – the excuse was built-in. That is a major explanation, I think, for writers using such time-wasting methods as longhand, even if they type well. Anything written in longhand is clearly not yet done and so cannot be laughed at as though it were.

An even better way to avoid having what you write being taken as a serious expression of your abilities, however, is not to write at all. What has never been put on paper cannot be read by anyone. After that first meeting, I thought that this idea hit on something fundamental: people don’t write as a way of avoiding being laughed at.

Something fundamental had happened, as well. As I also pointed out to them that first day, they had all told something quite shameful about themselves, and they had not died. (I was very much in mind here of what might be called the “new California therapies,” which rely on people revealing their psyches or bodies in public and discovering that the revelation, similarly, is not lethal.) It surprised me that the members of this group, many of whom knew each other quite well, knew nothing at all about each other’s work habits and, in fact, had hardly ever seen any of each other’s writing. I resolved to do something about that.


Becker, H. S. (1983). Freshman English for graduate students: A memoir and two theories. The Sociology Quarterly, 24, 575-588.

Holt, J. (1965). How children fail. London: Penguin Books.

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