Writing as a Learning Process

Welcome to the first installment of Writing Wednesdays – a biweekly column with writer and researcher for The Drawing Board, Rachael Heffernan.

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At the outset of writing my thesis, I sat down with my advisor with a pile of questions. Unfortunately, though I had over a hundred pages of reading notes, I had not yet written anything myself.

My advisor was not impressed. “You must write.” He said. “Writing is a kind of learning, you know.”

I did not know. I had always thought of writing as something that you did once you had figured out what you wanted to say. Sure, you may fill in little holes here and there as you go, but writing was, I thought, the step you took after you had learned about the things you wanted to write about.

That understanding came out of my (well-founded) anxiety of disorganization. If I wrote without a plan, or without sufficient material stockpiled, I couldn’t write for very long before I had to stop writing. I would pull out books and articles to help me, and pretty soon I was surrounded by various journals, loose leaf paper, and Word documents, all full of bits of research, ideas, brainstorming, outlines, and even the occasional well-formed and articulated thought. Inevitably, my rumbling tummy or a nearing appointment would draw me away from my wild research tornado. Upon returning to that project, maybe hours, maybe days later, I would find sheets of paper crumpled or lost, forget which journal I had written what in, search endlessly for the obscure Word document I had titled in my academic frenzy, and ultimately feel lost and discombobulated amongst the disconnected threads of consciousness strewn around my workspace.

Under the pressure of meeting deadlines, I did not understand the chaos that was my writing process as contributing to my learning; I saw it as a hindrance to my academic success.

It was not. As much as I may have many lessons to learn vis a vis organization, I now understand (thanks to the guidance of my advisor) how important the craziness of that initial writing phase is. It is active. It is inspired. It is energetic. And no matter how many sheets of loose leaf paper I may have lost, at least I was excited. Being lit up in that way can never be recreated by reading, or by debating, or by presenting. Those have their own types of elation. But fighting to find the exact right words for the idea you have had just now, or having new ideas even as you are writing your other new ideas down, or finding that you cannot write fast enough to keep up with all you want to say – these are the rewards that await us when we put words to page.

We are not stenographers, nor copyists – we will never be able to sit down and write all that is in our heads with no edits or second thought. Writing is messy, and tumultuous, and raucous, and unsystematic – but if we can allow ourselves to take joy in the pandemonium and appreciate it for its contribution to our learning, it can shift from a stressor to an adventure.


rachaelRachael Heffernan has recently completed a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. In the course of her academic career, she has received the Harrison Prize in Religion and The Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship. During her undergraduate degree, Rachael was published twice in The Codex: Bishop University’s Journal of Philosophy, Religion, Classics, and Liberal Arts for her work on Hittite divination and magic and philosophy of religion. Rachael has also had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig in Israel, and has spoken at a conference on Secularism at the University of Alberta on the Christian nature of contemporary Western healthcare. Her wide-ranging interests in scholarship are complemented by her eclectic extra-curricular interests: she is a personal safety instructor and lifelong martial artist who has been recognized for her leadership with a Nepean Community Sports Hero Award. She is an enthusiastic reader, writer, and learner of all things, a tireless athlete, and a passionate teacher.

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