Musings on teaching writing

When I was in high school, our writing instruction included a lot of exercises in “the writing process.” Rather than simply turning in a final product, we were required to follow a series of steps that our teachers took to be exemplary in some way — this basically consisted of brainstorming, outlining, rough draft, second draft, and final draft. I’m sure the method was helpful for some people, but I and many of my peers found it to be an artificial series of hoops. Between the rough draft and final draft, nothing substantial would change, aside from perhaps correcting spelling errors or altering wording here and there.

I do appreciate the spirit of this exercise, but where I think it goes wrong is in not teaching students how to think about writing parts of things. We’re supposed to outline the whole argument, then produce a draft of the entire thing, then supposedly rewrite the entire thing, etc. This reinforces the students’ default mindset, which culminates in the ritual suffering of writing the whole thing on the night before — because they have no productive way of thinking about the paper as anything but a whole, they also have no way of conceiving how they could divide up the work. This also leads to the “and another thing!” school of organization that is so familiar to educators from grading papers.

In my experience, diving up the work conceptually and spreading out the work over a series of days are processes that reinforce one another. If you can establish what steps you need to take to make the argument you are setting forth, you can work for a couple hours on step #1 or whatever. Then when you write up step #2, you can see if there is anything in what you wrote for step #1 that could be changed to lead more smoothly into step #2, etc. You might even figure out that maybe it would make more sense to put #2 first, but that would require changing #2 and then changing #1 to fit its new position — rather than a vague, overwhelming task like “reorganizing your paper.” (In my experience, if I suggest that a student do any major reorganization of their paper in a setting where they can rewrite, they almost never do so, and it’s probably because they have no real way of thinking of their paper as made up of pieces and so hear that suggestion as “tear out the whole paper and start over.”)

In short, this method provides a series of bite-sized tasks that feel more or less complete in themselves but nonetheless clearly add up to something bigger over time. I would even suggest that if one were using such a “divide and conquer” strategy, it would be manageable to be working on two or even three papers more or less concurrently, because each would get little packets of time over a longer period, rather than representing a catastrophic lump sum of time that can’t be integrated into any kind of normal schedule. Students’ lives would not be punctuated by horrific panics, everyone could get a good night’s sleep, and the papers would generally be better, so professors would be happier at grading time. Everybody wins!

(Just to preempt some comments: I don’t think I’m the first person ever to think of this idea; I realize that it would mean more work or at least a significant change in most professors’ patterns of working with student writing; I don’t think I’m a genius who has all the answers, etc.)

16 thoughts on “Musings on teaching writing

  1. It really took into my senior year of undergrad to understand this, wish someone could of taught me long before that. Because I would have such huge anxiety over papers until I learned to break it down into manageable quantities.

  2. This seems perfectly reasonable to me, and a model that the good folks who make Scrivener would be happy to facilitate. I’ve not written anything of substantial length in a while, but when I do Scrivener will be the platform I use for precisely this reason.

  3. I’ve been reluctant to try Scrivener just because I’m very conservative when it comes to my writing habits, but it might be a good idea to give it a try over this winter break to see if it would be worth suggesting to my students — because a tool like Microsoft Word does definitely reinforce the “whole thing” approach.

  4. Word seems to go out of its way to reinforce, too, the quintessential “big blank white page” syndrome that intimidates so many people. That’s unavoidable to an extent. But Scrivener makes structural strides to make the fear more manageable.

  5. I’m a student having exactly this problem right now. I’ve been specifically taught to write essays that are one overarching argument and it’s very difficult to break them down into manageable chunks for writing purposes. Great post!

  6. In composition and rhetoric, there is one view of writing that many (ok, I) subscribe to that I think you are point to here: that essays are really composed of rhetorical parts. So, when I teach students about writing, we talk about the multiple rhetorical possibilities of a paragraph instead of “the organization,” such as the paragraph’s ability to be an example, a supporting argument, an oppositional voice, etc. It seems easier to break students away from that “whole argument” thing you talk about and towards thinking about how that whole argument comes together.

    It also helps to break students away from really shitty workshop methods, which completely destroy any hope of revision or any kind of change between drafts.

  7. Yes, I think there’s a disproportionate emphasis on the thesis statement, while the approach to organization can be pretty arbitrary and superficial — as in the “three main points” requirement.

  8. Andrea, is there some part of a comp or rhetoric textbook you either assign or teach from that spells out that approach? It sounds like it could be really helpful, especially in concert with Adam’s suggestion: For Monday, write two hundred words describing the strongest argument against your position you can think of, or giving a textual example of your thesis, etc.

  9. The thesis statement is a big part of the game. It’s just that it takes a ton of effort etc to teach / learn what a good one looks like. What seems to me hardest about teaching / learning to construct a good one is that the process relies on having a sense of “what they say” about the text or topic in question and then making a counter or problematizing claim. Since students don’t have a sense of “what they say” about stuff (that’s what they’re there to learn after all) makes the process difficult – makes it rely on confidence / guts / leaps of faith / guesses / intuition.

  10. Just to chime in: I’ve started using Scrivener this semester to organize both of my grad classes, and I’ve found it to be useful. I think the feature I like most is probably the most simplistic, and might in fact be replicable with other programs. I just like having a binder on the left side of the screen where I can quickly jump between my notes on all of the various sources I’ve read. I still do a lot of my writing organization in my head or out loud in conversations with others, so for both of my papers, I did the whole write it from start-to-finish thing. Well, to be honest, I’m procrastinating paper #2 at this moment, but I’ve written the introduction and have the main body and conclusion in my head, so I’m sure I’ll write it straight through once I’m done screwing around.

    I’m most anxious to see how I can put Scrivener to work on my own projects. So far, my two Scrivener projects are simply one stop places where I’ve put all my work for each of my classes. Depending on how lazy I get over break, I have two or three ideas that I’d like to start as projects. I can’t say much about using it in relation to Word, because I’ve been using OpenOffice since undergrad, and I still used OpenOffice to write up the drafts of my final paper.

  11. That is definitely a case of horse-cart reversal. We’re expecting them to argue about something that they’ve barely digested — in many cases, I think getting them to produce a faithful summary would be a challenge. Another problem — we expect them to create critical arguments entirely in a void, usually with no examples to work from or analyze and no notion of what the point of the thing is. I remember that it was revelatory in my senior AP lit class when our teacher actually presented us with… a critical article! That was the first literary argument we’d seen other than the ones we were randomly and blindly making up ourselves.

    It’d probably be easier to think about thesis statements and how to divide up an argument effectively if you first started with pre-existing arguments, right?

  12. Brian, for students, They Say, I Say by Gerald Graff does a great job of teaching students that academic writing is about various “moves” by writers, so you have to recognize and then emulate those kinds of moves to be successful. I love it because it breaks up essays into rhetorical parts and it has sample essays and activities to practice with. For teaching, I suggest reading Deborah Dean’s The Writing Practice and Beyond. There are lots of great rhetoric textbooks that are fairly interchangeable (The McGraw HIll Guide by Roen is one I’m currently using). Hope that is useful!!

  13. Adam,

    I would like to pile-on with my support for your notion.

    Speaking of Scrivener, writing in parts, and writing styles, I have an unusual solution. Each essay I write begins as a series of mini-essays on parts of the topic, until I get an idea that I can bring all the way to completion. Then, I write the various parts as separate documents that I continually rewrite, wherein each rewriting is another separate document. I do not combine them until the very end. This leads to 20-30 text files to complete an article, for instance. I am not saying that I necessarily recommend the practice, but I believe I was inspired by how computer code is written, as it is done in this manner with versioning systems. As a concluding thought, how much does the organization of writing affect and practically limit the styles that one has at one’s command?

  14. Andrea: that’s extremely useful, thanks. I was able to pull the Graff/Birkenstein volume from the library yesterday, and am extremely impressed–this is definitely worth using in the classroom. (The whole set up is very simple and smart, but I’m especially enamored of their exercises.)

  15. Andrea (because you seem to be the resident expert or anyone else, of course): for those of us who have not had any training in rhetoric and composition (the idea of the mandatory first year “composition class” common in American universities does not exist in Canada), how do we integrate this into our courses or teaching? How do we design assignments/activities into the classroom?

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