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Al-Salem '17: You’re still a writer if you’re bad at papers

Before I arrived at Brown, I used to  call myself a writer. Like many others who dabbled in writing, I did not necessarily like my writing style and would throw the occasional pity party, but I still identified as a writer. Now, as a senior, any confidence I may have had as a writer has been tried and tested to the extreme. This is primarily because, at Brown and other colleges, academic writing is generally considered the be-all and end-all of writing as a whole.

I am not an academic person. Everything about me, from how I speak during section to how I construct my arguments, is not academic or scholarly. This has always been to my detriment: I often come across as less intellectual than my fellow classmates because I don’t say words like “juxtaposed” and “homogenous” with every other breath. Instead, when I discuss my reaction to a reading or a professor’s argument, I talk like I would to a friend. I hate abstract theories that take three or four reads to understand and hypotheticals that would never actually apply in the real world. I tend to argue in basic terminology because that’s how my brain processes information.

My discomfort with academic writing was compounded by the fact that my high school education involved teachers accepting downloaded Wikipedia articles as essays. As a non-native English speaker who grew up abroad, I did not have the same training as my peers in the language. I still struggle with grammar because it was never taught to me properly, and so I feel intense embarrassment when professors point out my errors in papers.

I’m not saying I am disillusioned with academic writing because college has made me feel dumb: I am just disappointed that college destroyed my self-confidence as a writer. While I know on a superficial level that no one is equating academic writing to writing as a whole, I can’t help but feel the blow every time I struggle to phrase my opinions in a suitably academic fashion.

But I am grateful to have other outlets for my eclectic writing style. As a writer for The Herald and Post-, I never have to force myself to sound smart. I type like I speak, and my editors see this as both a negative and a positive: They may have to tirelessly edit my run-on sentences and grammar mistakes, but at the same time I don’t think my writing is hard to read and understand. I would like to think that my writing is accessible and relatable to all readers.

Yet I can’t translate those qualities to my papers. When I write passionately for one paper, I receive feedback telling me to be careful about sounding too colloquial. The next time around, in fear of sounding colloquial, I end up writing a paper I do not feel proud of, one that contains just enough ‘academic’ phrases and syntax to pass. I submit every paper with a wince because I have no idea how my bullshit will be received.

While I’ve survived in college thus far, I do not believe the changes in my academic writing reflect my overall growth as a writer. This is ironic considering the WRIT requirement is meant to encourage this very improvement. As a humanities major, my every semester has been filled with paper-heavy WRIT courses, and all I’ve really learned from them is how to make my papers look more academic.

I am not arguing that academic writing is useless and we should just throw out years of education and conditioning. I am simply using this space to address those who, like me, feel that the feedback on their academic writing has weakened their confidence as a writer. Whatever it is you write, be it prose or poetry, please know that writing encompasses a huge stylistic spectrum with an even wider audience. While your run-on sentences might be frowned upon in an academic paper, remember that there’s some reader out there who likes how those very sentences invoke a sense of excitement and involvement. Just look at James Joyce!

Sara Al-Salem ’17 can be reached at

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