Imprecise Words: Learning to Grow as a Writer

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In his lecture “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” James Baldwin begins with a list of words that, for him, hold unclear meanings, words such as: artist, integrity, courage, nobility, democracy, peace, peace-loving, and warlike. He writes: 

And yet one is compelled to recognize that all these imprecise words are attempts made by us all to get to something which is real and which lives behind the words. … The terrible thing is that the reality behind all these words depends on choices one has got to make, for ever and ever and ever, every day. (63


Each time I teach Baldwin’s lecture, I try to create new lenses for reading, writing, and discussion. This process reminds me how students struggle with the long sentences, dense paragraphs, and often, as Baldwin suggests, “imprecise words” that help to make meaning for readers. Because the words are imprecise, new meaning can be derived from them each time, and so I struggle along with students to find new meaning. 


In a recent semester, after listening to audio of Baldwin reading his lecture, my students found a connection that was new to many of us. In his lyrics for “Shattered Dreams,” the American rapper Earl Sweatshirt samples Baldwin’s phrase “imprecise words.” The imprecise words of the early 1960s brought immediate connection to the “terrible…reality of all these words” for the late 2010s. 


Connections across generations are crucial for me in teaching and learning Baldwin’s work. Imprecise words cannot possibly encapsulate or pin down to the unspeakable realities of everyday life. “Artist’s Struggle” offers a means of connecting one’s own struggle to the suffering of others. In bearing witness to struggle and suffering, perhaps one comes to understand how imprecise words cannot possibly describe the “terrible…reality.” As Baldwin suggests, the artist’s struggle for integrity, truth, and honesty, imprecise as those words might be, “is almost our only hope” – and for Baldwin that hope is writing (67).


As our class has passed the midterm mark, I decided to try a thought experiment to learn which “imprecise words” stand out in Baldwin’s lecture, in my writing assignment about the lecture, and on students’ self-assessment of their own writing on Baldwin’s lecture. I used Data Word Counter because, in addition to a word cloud similar to Wordle, Word Counter would give me quantitative data of how often specific words were used and the context in which the words were used. Following are the word clouds generated by Word Counter, as well as the word most often in each text. The website for quantitative data is linked after each word cloud.


Word cloud with orange background and white letters. The most prominent words are highlighted in bold print.jpg

 “Artist’s Struggle” 3503 words

Most common words: One and People, tied at 23 occurrences each 


While People was used 23 times, the word does not show up in any of the phrases in the quantitative data. One occurs most often with the verbs “is” and “has.” My interpretation here is that these two words  are interchangeable. Baldwin wants to gain the support of his audience and to invest in their own struggles for integrity and truth. If the audience can bear witness to their own struggles and their own suffering, then perhaps they can also come to a stronger place of empathic action in the early 1960s struggles for Civil Rights.


Word cloud with orange background and white letters for Writing Project 1. The most promienent word is highlighted in bold print.jpg

Assignment for Writing Project 1, 981 words

Most common word Baldwin, with 30 occurrences 


Baldwin was used most frequently with “respond” and “response.” The purpose of the assignment was to offer students an opportunity to think through their interpretations of Baldwin’s work, and how Baldwin might respond to their interpretations.


Word cloud with orange background and white letters for student assessment of Writing Project 1. The most prominent word is highlighted in bold print.jpg

A sampling of approximately 20 students’ self-assessments for Writing Project 1

7662 words

The most common word is writing, with 124 occurrences 


Writing  is used most often by students as both an adjective, as in “Writing Project,” and as a noun, “high school writing,” “college writing,” and composing writing. Students were responding to the following self-assessment prompt:

Self-Assessment: At least 3 paragraphs that respond to these questions

  • What did you learn from preparing for and composing this writing project?  
  • What were your struggles with this writing project?
  • What might you do similarly and differently moving forward? For example, how might journals be useful to free writing your ideas? What differences do you notice between high school and college writing? 


From this prompt, it seems clear that students were using the words I provided to respond to the questions. This past academic year, I have noticed that students are asking for more explicit directions for each assignment, and are taking care to follow the directions exactly as written. My hope in teaching Baldwin is to present another view of writing, that the tools at writers’  disposal are “imprecise words.” From those “imprecise words,” Baldwin suggests, writers must attempt to struggle with integrity, to imagine themselves as artists. 


In his conclusion, Baldwin asserts to the audience, “It is time to ask very hard questions and to take very rude positions. And no matter at what price” (69). Hard questions and rude positions remind me that, as a teacher, I want to do more assigning students to follow explicit directions. In fact, my hope is that students will come to question the purpose of the directions, and if the directions might not be revised to create a more inclusive atmosphere for students to grow as writers. Directions themselves are imprecise words, which is why the outcome often differs from the initial expectation. In this way, one might learn to bear witness to difference, and to  “get to something which is real and which lives behind the words.” In this way, perhaps, one can grow as a writer.



Baldwin, James. "The Artist's Struggle for Integrity." The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, edited by Randall Kenan, Pantheon Books, 2010, pp. 63-70. 


About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.