How They Write

How They Write

“First, just write the rant.”

That insight was among the advice religion professor Jeffrey Israel shared with students in the fall as part of the How I Write series, organized by Williams’ Writing Center. Israel, the author of Living with Hate in American Politics and Religion, published by Columbia University Press in 2019, was joined by essayist, book editor, English professor and department chair Bernie Rhie for the conversation, which took place in October.

Four students who coordinate the Writing Center’s tutors planned the series, with a goal of representing a variety of disciplines and presenting information that was relatable. “We thought about professors we knew who provided great concrete feedback to their students,” says Shreyas Rajesh ’22, one of the student organizers.

Reid Kurashige ’22 says he wanted people to think together about the process of a practice that so many of the Williams community are engaged in every day, from writing lab reports to prose. “We hardly ever talk about our professors writing,” he says, “and that always struck me as a lost opportunity.”

Taking a page from past organizers, this year’s students hosted the events, introduced the speakers and moderated discussions, all of which were recorded and are available on the Writing Center’s website. Darin Li ’22 says he, Kurashige, Rajesh and Emma McTague ’23 and his fellow organizers asked the professors open-ended questions in hopes of fostering conversations about “how many ways there are to approach a hard task.” These led to moments of candor: Rhie recalling an influential seventh-grade English teacher who encouraged metaphors in writing; Israel confessing that he hates writing emails; Tiku Majumder, Barclay Jermain Professor of Natural Philosophy, acknowledging his love of bullet points; and President Maud Mandel sharing a memory of her mother’s aggressive editing style.

They also offered handy tips, such as Israel’s note about writing the rant; bits of learned wisdom, like when Mandel told students, “Writing is a form that thinking takes”; and plenty of inspiring words, such as Rhie’s statement, “Every time you write something that you’re happy with, you feel lucky.”

“I think anyone watching will walk away with some concrete ideas for how they can improve their writing process,” says Rajesh. “More than that, though, having a chance to think about writing also gives us a chance to think about ourselves, our own thinking processes and how we choose to communicate.”