Back in the late ’90s, the summer before my senior year at Amherst, I discovered the thrill of publishing words in print. Maine Times, my home state’s weekly paper, was shoestring but mighty, known for its long-form investigative journalism as well as thoughtful cultural coverage. It was the first real publication my byline appeared in, and by the end of my summer internship they had offered me an unexpected promotion. There was only one catch: In order to be the new arts editor, replacing the woman I’d worked for during the summer, I’d have to take a year off from school.
I was so flattered by their faith in me that I nearly accepted, but having deferred for a year before entering Amherst, I couldn’t imagine delaying graduation another 12 months, and the thought of being cleaved from my roommates while they stacked one senior-year celebration upon the last opened a hole in my stomach. The job offer had, however, glued two realizations to the flypaper of my mind: first, that I could be an editor someday, and second, that Amherst was making me a better writer.
While I was fortunate to have several excellent teachers in high school, coming to Amherst from a large, public institution in a postindustrial mill city meant that some of the general communication strategies I’d absorbed needed to be unlearned. The broad summary I breezily unfurled as the opening to a five-paragraph essay met with startling slash marks in my first literature class, taught by Professor Michele Barale. Start with the good stuff, she told us; the writer’s job is to stimulate the reader rather than dare her to fight the yawns. Barale, and others, also shook me out of the passive voice. I had a habit of taking a back seat in my writing, too nervous and unsure to assert an opinion. My professors pointed this out—college was the first time my attention was drawn to this—demanding I own my assertions and point of view. As the Irish writer Anne Enright says, “Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.”
In no class did I think harder about description than my first art history class. How could I convey the subtlety of color, the faint wisp of a brush or the anarchic spirit of a painting? First we had to find the most vivid and accurate word—le mot juste, as our professor, Natasha Staller, was fond of saying. When I referred to the “front” of a building, she crossed it out and wrote façade. “Language is crucial,” stated her handout instructing us in how to analyze visual art. “A Monet is a different solar system from a late Goya: the vocabulary to describe them demands to be different.” When I wrote that Monet’s haystacks “are consonant with their background,” she asked for more specificity: “yes—how?”
Prior to college, the challenge of most academic assignments had always been what to write: was my answer correct? My high school teachers didn’t have a lot of time to focus on the mode of expression—how a phrase could be sharper, a transition more graceful, an argument tightened. At Amherst, I began to understand how the writing is inseparable from the ideas. If the ideas are murky, the writing will be clear as mud.
Structuring my ideas was a significant challenge in the one philosophy class I took at Amherst. My roommate Eric, an econ and philosophy double major, urged me to take a class on reading the early modern thinkers. “Don’t you want to read Descartes and Hume and Locke with me?” he asked. I did, but I should have started at the intro level. When we swapped papers for our first long assignment, I saw that his included symbols and equations that looked like math. I had written a descriptive essay that failed to make any arguments. Professor Jonathan Vogel wrote next to my introductory paragraph, “This is hard to follow: it’s an unconnected set of assertions.” It took me a long time to understand how to do better—how philosophical arguments are not simply a thesis bolstered by supporting examples. The only reason I passed the course is that the final exam was multiple-choice; I could recognize the arguments, even if I couldn’t formulate them myself.
Of more immediate benefit was internalizing the revision process. First drafts, even those checked for spelling and grammar, were nowhere near good enough. This was hammered home by the fact that most of my classes required, at the end of the term, a substantial rewrite of one of our earlier papers. Revision meant squarely facing my initial efforts and letting the professor’s comments, and those from any peers, settle in, drifting down past the discomfort and embarrassment of my work being criticized to nestle comfortably near the root of the problem, like the sand that collects at the bottom of your sock after a day at the beach.
It took me a long time to understand how to do better.”
On a page I revised for an anthropology and epidemiology class describing the dangers of diet pills and the FDA’s insufficient review of them, my own copious notes wedge in between the extensive strikethroughs, brackets and side comments from my professor. Our task was to write a New York Times–style op-ed about a particular contemporary health crisis. Such an assignment required us to drop our favorite jargon (hegemonic, anyone?) and communicate directly to the general public. Seeing my words and sentences crossed out, and then reading what was left behind, helped me understand how to unclutter my writing, and how to make a strong point without resorting to florid rhetoric. One marginal note from my professor reads: “end this para. better.” Better how? It was my job to figure it out.
Amherst continued to improve my writing after I graduated. My first job was at the College, as the Ives Washburn Fellow in what was then called the Office of Public Affairs. To apply, I submitted my portfolio from Maine Times, including one story about the state’s three female rabbis that had won an award for reporting on religion. My bosses provided me with the freedom to write feature stories of my choosing for Amherst magazine. They also entrusted me with proofreading. Being responsible for a poster that will publicly shame you if there is an error is an unbeatable education.
During the editorial process in Public Affairs, my bosses would explain why they changed certain words and moved sentences around; they told me where the story sagged and needed more life. Editing, I grew to understand, is best learned by apprenticeship. I’ve tried to carry this forward. Revision, and its attendant humility and perseverance, is firmly built into our workflow at The Common, the literary magazine I founded at Amherst in 2011; our student interns emphasize this skill when they work with authors and teach fiction writing to high school students.
I took two fiction writing classes (plus a nonfiction class and two poetry courses) at Amherst, one of them with Judith Frank. Judy, as I am now allowed to call them, started each workshop with the question, “What is this story about?” Halfway through the semester, the class grumbled, “Isn’t there another way to begin?” The following week, our hopes grew as Judy said, “I’ve thought about your question,” and then fell when they concluded: “I still think asking what the story is about is the best way to start.” Judy was right. Stating what you’ve gleaned from a piece is the first step in evaluating it. In our internal editorial discussions at The Common and in the courses we now teach, we begin the same way.
When I left Public Affairs, my writing had not only improved but expanded. I’d learned to write short biographical profiles, honorary degree citations, fundraising appeals and early copy for the College’s first-ever web designer. In time, even my philosophical skills improved, though not in the way I had imagined.
After completing my multiple-choice exam for “Early Modern,” I rushed to the library to email my parents and friends that I was “done with philosophy forever!!!!!” My wise mother replied immediately: “Forever is a very long time.” Six years later, I married an Amherst College philosophy professor whose academic papers I find myself editing for clarity, particularly when he wants to communicate to a nonspecialist audience. Just don’t ask me to write about Descartes’ ball of wax.
Acker is founder and editor-in-chief of The Common and author of the debut novel The Limits of the World, a fiction honoree for the 2020 Massachusetts Book Award. Her memoir “Fatigue” is an Amazon bestseller. At Amherst, Acker directs the Literary Publishing Internship and LitFest.
Photograph by Jessica Scranton