The words were written in large, red letters across the top of the page — "Go see the writing counselor. Her phone number is..."
I had just received my first, graded essay as a college freshman in a class called “The Mind.” Clearly mine was doing something wrong: The professor hadn’t even bothered to give me a grade.
Ironically, the problem started with a method some might call scientific. My high school taught a regimented form of writing called “power writing,” in which every paragraph had a purpose (overview, detail, sub-detail), as did every sentence (overview, detail, sub-detail). Power writing assembled these pieces of language according to a rigid formula, much like following the steps in a chemistry lab. I suppose school administrators adopted power writing to help organize wayward teen minds. Unfortunately, the method also stifled creativity, personal voice, complex argument, and took the joy out of writing. For my “Mind” class, I had turned in a perfect power writing essay.
So, when I saw those bold, red words across the top of the page I ran for cover. I never went to see the writing counselor. I avoided writing as much as possible, abandoning words and sentences for symbols and signs. My class schedule was a whirlwind of math and science classes in which I puzzled out theoretical problems. I romanticized the idea that I was privy to a secret language, one that opened a portal to a world of perfect answers. I basked in learning to manipulate concepts and ideas until they formed elegant, cohesive solutions.
The consequences of my avoidance strategy hit me like the force of gravity on a ton of bricks when I was writing the dissertation for my doctoral degree at USC. To be sure, my dissertation was chock full of Greek letters. But in between, I had to fill the space with verbs and nouns, not just equal signs and omegas. I had abandoned power writing years before, and in its place was only a vacuum. The writing was agonizing.
A friend kindly agreed to review my first draft. As I flipped open the cover, I had the same sinking feeling I had had freshman year. The page was coated in red ink that blurred and seemed to spell “writing counselor.”
But, this time I didn’t flee. I took a deep breath and studied the red ink. And it was brilliant. The comments showed where to cut, where to add, where to reorganize. As the ideas and concepts slipped into their proper places, my points crystallized. The edits were a revelation: Writing was a powerful problem-solving tool. Writing forced you to think clearly. It had no patience for missing pieces of ideas or concepts with rough edges. Writing was the ultimate problem that, when solved, conveyed thoughts with perfect elegance.
After leaving USC, I stumbled into a job writing math and science textbooks. I learned to write in the small captions and paragraphs squeezed between graphics, puzzling out the clearest ways to compress complex ideas into succinct sentences. This was the start of my journey toward becoming a science writer.
Sometimes there are multiple solutions to the problem of writing a good piece. Some stories are unsolvable puzzles, or at least unsolvable given the limitations of knowledge and skill. But in those profound moments when words, sentences, and concepts come together to perfectly express a thought, I know I’ve found the real power (of) writing.
Juli Berwald ’98 is a freelance science writer who earned her Ph.D. in ocean science from USC College. Her work has appeared in Oceanus Magazine, Wired.com, Redbook, and National Geographic. She also writes middle and high school science textbooks and technical publications for the Gulf Coast Carbon Center at the University of Texas. Berwald lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two children.