On Writing Outside of Academia

September 30, 2016 § 13 Comments


Natalie Schneider Brooks

By Natalie Schneider Brooks

All my writing has taken place within a bubble. It is either trapped in the hard drive of my computer or resides in the piles of essays I have submitted for classes. Apart from a brief foray into the blogosphere during my last two years of high school and part of my freshmen year of college, none of my writing has left the brick walls of my academic institution.

There is something safe about writing for academia. In this protected environment it is like jumping off a cliff with a bungee cord; it may be terrifying but there is always something there to safely pull me back.  At times it feels like writing without consequences. Sure my writing impacts my grade and potentially my future, but I only have to worry about one audience: the instructor. Usually I can gauge what that audience is looking for after a couple of small assignments and predict what I need to include in my work. Combine that with the drafting process and a healthy dose of pestering during office hours and you’re pretty set when it comes to the results of the final project.

In college there is no rejection. Your writing is going to get accepted and read no matter what and as long as you are reasonably competent and put the work in, you can get the results you desire. This is the environment where I first discovered I could write. A freshmen composition class gave me the tools I needed and my first British literature class introduced me to the joys of literary analysis. This summer I was exposed to the world of creative nonfiction for the first time and I rediscovered my childhood love for creating stories. In the classroom, I still have control over my words and I don’t have to worry about setting them loose in the world to fend for themselves.

However, all of that is changing.  I have spent the last five years writing within the walled garden of academia, protected by rubrics and guidelines, inspired by prompts and assignments with a friendly face to guide me through every step of the process. But soon, I will graduate with my masters, step out into the real world, and confront the reality of whether or not I can write outside of classroom.

I sort of tried once. I took an undergraduate class about freelance writing. It was all online and I was expecting the same protected space as my past classes, with no external impacts. This was not the case. Part of our assignment was to write real articles that were going to real publishers. It was one of the most anxiety inducing classes I have taken. In the end, I got a good grade in the class and nothing I submitted got accepted for publication. I could remain safe in my isolated college space and ignore the risks of writing for an expanded audience.

It is ironic that I am so anxious about my own writing since I teach English composition as part of my graduate teaching assistantship. In class, we spend a lot of time focusing on audience and I regularly have to remind my students to keep in mind the hypothetical audience for their papers, attempting to manufacture an artificial representation of the real world they will enter after leaving my class. Many of the students I teach come to college hating writing. They feel bad about their ability and they don’t want to reveal their voices to the outside world for fear of rejections and ridicule. Even though several years and a diploma separate us, I see these same fears echoed in my own thoughts.

As a composition instructor, it is my job to coax students along, helping to grow their writing skills without silencing their individual voice. It is a beautiful sight to see them develop their skills over the course of the semester and some of them truly cultivate a beautiful voice as they write. However, to do that, they have to take that first step. They have to commit themselves to the page and open their identity up to be examined and critiqued. My Master’s program has forced me to do this more than my undergraduate classes did. I have had to challenge myself to do more than just write for the grade; coasting is no longer an option. But after the classes are finished and I walk across the stage at graduation once again, will I be able to push myself on my own? Or will I remain trapped, leaving my love of writing locked behind me once again? At this point I don’t know, but I hope that doesn’t happen. I want to continue along this path as a writer. Maybe simply committing these words to the page is the first step.


Natalie Schneider Brooks is a Master’s Student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha studying Rhetoric and Composition. She works as a Teaching Assistant and in her free time coaches for the MavForensics competitive speech team. She also writes fairly regularly on her personal blog Homeschool Alien.

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§ 13 Responses to On Writing Outside of Academia

  • Bruce McNab says:

    Unfortunately most of the writing done outside of academia has nothing to do with writing essays. If you really want to learn to write for an real audience (and develop your critical thinking) try writing for a newspaper, or better yet, a TV newscast. The discipline required is very hard work.

    • I would love to write more non-essay stuff (although I do love a good literary analysis) and thankfully my school has offered several classes that have given me a taste of that kind of writing. However, I have just begun to explore that area, so I am still trying things out to find my niche.

  • On the flip side, there’s freedom in writing outside of academia. You can write what you want and not have to worry about a grade (just rejections). You can start to think about what kind of writer you want to be. Good luck!

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Unlike academic or business writing or letters to the editor about a planned development, personal writing can serve the writer in many meaningful ways by: clarifying thinking through exploring, organizing, and supporting ideas on the page; reflecting which forces the writer to step away, even if only a small distance, in order to examine experiences; journaling in order to keep a personal record for oneself or family; and sharing with an unknown audience through a blog or more directly in email or letters.

    Seeing oneself in print in a book or journal is a different sort of goal and the one most likely to be discouraging. Some people are eager to make this a life work, or too stubborn to give up, but no writer is *required* to publish in this way. It is always a choice. We are not required to have work accepted in order to write, and rejections should not shut down anyone’s writing. Sadly, they often do. If writing is personally rewarding, we should just do it regardless, and we probably will.

    • I try and keep focused on that idea, and that is why I try to keep writing on my blog. I want a place to write for myself. But sometimes it’s hard to write without the motivation of an external audience. I pretty sure I will keep sure I will keep writing. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see what form it takes.

  • Lovey says:

    This felt like me reading about myself.🙂
    You’re so good. I am so sure that you can write within or outside of academia. Because, I have just navigated through this Blog.
    I’d suggest you to write for magazines, newspapers, Scripts and what not, I would even love to read your book if you plan to write any.🙂

    • Thank you for your very kind feedback! All those options sound interesting to me. I guess we’ll have to see what doors open. I would also love to write a book. But I think that’s pretty far down the road, so I’ll stick to blogging for now.

      • Lovey says:

        I totally support you. Do what feels right.🙂
        I intend to write a book too in future. But as you said it beautifully, I have to see what doors open.
        I wish you the very best. Keep in touch.🙂

  • yOSlQ5N2p635O9AVhxzla+0zq3qw+fij//8gMuzNzPM= says:

    Good thoughts. I appreciate you sharing your voice. I can relate to the fear you speak of here.

  • Kim Gorman says:

    With a master’s degree in English, you have learned just about everything you can about writing. Now that you know the rules, you can break them and go a little wild! Have faith in yourself, trust your inner voice, and let loose.

  • […] Everyone had such positive feedback and I felt so lucky to have that as my first experience sharing the words I had hidden for so long. Thank you to everyone who read it and commented on it. Even just looking at the number of people who “liked” it on the site was exhilarating. To know that that many people spent time to read something I wrote is amazing. So thank you for that.  If you haven’t already read the full Brevity post that I made, you can do so here. […]

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