As a single word carrying multiple meanings, writing is what you produce, the act of producing, and the tools you use. This piece is writing. So is this tap-tapping and so are these sentences made up of all these words.
Academic writers who aim to do more than churn out a dissertation, who want to write for publication and contribute to their fields, write differently in all three ways than do the dabblers.
Scholars with their names on the spines of the weighty tomes seem to belong to a secret society. Only the ultra-talented and super-human make it in. It can seem impossible to reach that degree of productivity. The truth is much less mysterious. Becoming an author as well as an expert is a choice, and it is a choice that takes the form of an overhaul. Shedding the ill-suited writing habits most everyone carries from English 101 and establishing themselves in writing life, those authors recognize that their subject-matter expertise is only valuable when it is part of a larger conversation.
Be that as it may, the transformation from student to scholar does involve entering a secret society. For members of this circle, the zero draft is the secret handshake.
Whether you call it the “spew” draft, the discovery draft, or the exploratory freewrite, the purpose is the same: to break the one-draft habit. In graduate school and in publishing, the writing process necessarily becomes both iterative and complex. The students who grasp this begin their initiation into the community of scholars not just by writing to demonstrate learning, as Peter Elbow notes, but writing to learn.
Ideas do not exist in a pure form separate from the act of writing them. The old axiom about clear writing being the result of clear thinking is inaccurate at best and dangerous at worst. It feeds into the assumption that writers have fresh ideas which they can capture and display. When writers consciously and intentionally use their initial drafts to pour and explore, they unlock themselves from their pre-determined formulations of what they “know,” and reveal assumptions, concepts, theories, and connections – all the things that came before and exist alongside what they are now cobbling together. Writing then works to fill in and build out the conversation about what we understand as real.
The false divide between subject-matter expert and writer exists only as long as the scholar imagines her job is to accurately represent some slice of the world. When she accepts the premise that the world itself take shape as she writes, the velvet rope lifts.