Academic journal article College English

When Writers Aren't Authors: A Qualitative Study of Unattributed Writers

Academic journal article College English

When Writers Aren't Authors: A Qualitative Study of Unattributed Writers

Article excerpt

Julia1 says, "I put my life into this, and no one will ever know that I had anything to do with it," describing her work writing sales proposals on behalf of a software company in a midsized Midwestern city. "Honestly, this job is soul crushing." When asked why she connects the rigors of her job and the lack of personal attribution for her writing to the state of her soul, Julia responds, "Writing is my identity-it's the only thing I do-and if it doesn't matter then my life doesn't matter." Julia identifies powerful feelings of dissatisfaction and disillusionment with her work at least in part because it is deeply ingrained in her that her writing is her-or that, ideally, it should be.

Julia's sentiments are reflective of a pervasive ideology of writing, perpetuated in many of our own composition classrooms: that "good" student writers deeply, personally, and emotionally identify as writers. Even as writing studies scholars have decentered expressivist views of writing in recent decades, the relationship between writing and expression remains a "tacit tradition" of the field (Burnham and Powell 120; Goldblatt 440). A blog post recently shared on Twitter by the National Council of Teachers of English, for example, claims that one of the top five reasons why students should write every day is that "writing is essential for self-understanding" (Walker). During Kathleen Yancey's address at the opening general session of the 2018 Conference on College Composition and Communication in Kansas City, she said that when we read student writing, we read them. And in a recent issue of College Composition and Communication, Eli Goldblatt draws a distinction between the goals of writing instruction and "preparation for remunerative work," saying: "What I am suggesting is that when we focus so much on professional and theoretical understandings of writing instruction . . . we can forget the importance of two impulses that compel writers: the desire to speak out of your most intimate experiences and to connect with communities in need" (442). While writing is an undoubtedly powerful tool for self-reflection and self-understanding, and while the impulses that Goldblatt identifies are, indeed, compelling, an overemphasis on writing's inextricability from the selfhood of the writer can set professional writers like Julia up to feel inadequate and dissatisfied with the writing they are tasked to do at work. This is not because that writing is inherently lacking in value or importance, nor is it because these writers lack opportunities to assert agency. Rather, this kind of self-assertion is not only not feasible in professional writing contexts where writers are denied authorial status and legally severed from ownership of the texts they produce (Barry; Brandt; Fisk; Rose), but, I find, it is often not even desirable, as writers seek to mitigate potential economic, professional, and emotional risks in a fraught writing marketplace that leaves them vulnerable. While Deborah Brandt, in The Rise of Writing, finds that professional writers experience what she calls "the residue of authorship" (27), or "they experience an authorial stake and intellectual ownership over the words that they write and at times derive pleasure, status, and growth from this writing" (34), I seek to understand the experiences and tactics of writers in moments when they do not necessarily derive pleasure, status, or growth from their work.

To do this, I draw from qualitative data collected across semi-structured interviews, participant observations, sample workplace texts, and writing reflections with four professional writers-Julia, Mary, Paige, and Rudy. In order to get at the vulnerabilities inherent in writing for pay without attribution, this essay focuses on the experiences of these writers as they write on behalf of or as the person or entity who controls their professional advancement, salary, and overall livelihood. This is not because other kinds of workplace writing-emails, task lists, internal reports-are inconsequential or unworthy of close study but because the act of writing on behalf of an employer brings issues of writerly identity, vulnerability, and status into sharp relief. …

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