Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Do as I say?

One of the biggest things we teachers of writing tend to share these days is a focus on writing as a process. Every instructor I've talked to about such things teaches a variety of brainstorming techniques: freewriting, listing, circle mapping (by many other names) are the big ones I use. In first year writing courses here at NWU, we also spend a lot of class time doing on peer editing, having students read and respond to each others' texts.

When I was in grad school, one of my friends who also taught writing was complaining about her writing block; she just couldn't get started writing, just couldn't put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. We were hanging out down in the dungeon where TAs hid, kvetching as usual amongst ourselves. People nodded, all having been in that boat.

I asked her, what she'd tried. She looked at me as if I'd done "To be or not to be" from Hamlet in the original Klingon.

"You teach brainstorming stuff in writing class, right?" She nodded. "So, which brainstorming stuff have you tried?" This time she looked at me as if I were speaking Entish. Everyone in the kvetching circle frowned and shook their heads.

I told her she should try some of the freewriting and other brainstorming techniques she taught in her writing class. And I swear, for the first and only time in my life (and trust me on this, it's not a usual reaction people have to me), people in the room looked at me as if they thought I were a [fill in your favorite expletive] genius.

For some reason, it hadn't occured to them that they might actually be teaching that stuff for a reason. If it's worth teaching, it's worth trying myself, you know?

Me? When I work, I use freewriting and listing extensively. I use them for "real" academic writing, for writing my syllabus, for drafting letters of recommendation, for just about anything more than a quick email. (And, believe it or not, I usually run my blog posts through a couple of drafts. Scary, isn't it, the thought of what you'd be reading now if I didn't revise a couple times.)

So here are my questions: How many of the people who teach writing use those process methods when they write themselves?

And how many of us peer edit?

How many of us reiterate these strategies when working with students in sophomore or upper-level classes? (And if you do, does it help?


  1. Interesting...it seems you and your colleagues came to brainstorming "backwards," so to speak, teaching it first and using it second. I find it surprising since I had assumed that all proficient writers did some manner of brainstorming. So, I guess I am more interested in the reverse question than the one you pose: do folks NOT use some sort of recursive, process-oriented writing? I am also interested in hearing ways to get students to do this seriously. The one method I have found that (sometimes) works is to have them submit a draft and then return it to them with comments. Group work also helps, but we are trying to get students to use these techniques independently, not just as a class exercise. Conferences work, but certain constraints cause problems there.

    In my case, never having been through a comp. class, I (re)developed the techniques independently, doing a lot of indexing of novels, listing, clustering, and outlining independently. Maybe that's why the process feels so natural to me: I "created" techniques that fit the way I think and work.

    I have also done a lot of it simply mentally, brainstorming, outlining, and drafting large parts as I am running, sometimes committing sentences and paragraphs to memory before I draft. My last step has always been a super detailed outline, so when I draft, I know exactly what moves I am going to make, having done days and weeks of freewriting.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Axis. I like your question.

    I didn't know anything about any sort of writing process strategies until I started grad school taking pedagogy classes in an MA program. The program made us do what it taught, and so convinced me.

    My PhD program had minimal (and when I say minimal, it should be written with only one letter) pedagogical training, so most of the students entering straight from a BA had basically no training in teaching. And being English types, most had tested through first year composition courses, or done well without really getting into the process stuff.

    So, my guess is, starting out, most taught what they were told to teach, and didn't really "buy" what they were doing. There was a disconnection of sorts, which strikes me as odd, but there it is.

  3. I never thought about my own process until taking the pedagogy class required for all first-year teachers in my program (UNC - heavy emphasis on comp!) - but it felt like a cheat for me to espouse these methods to my students and not be willing to stretch my own boundaries a little. So I started trying some of them.

    Not all of them work for me, but I've implemented/developed a bunch of them that DO work for me. (Right now I'm trying to learn to draft orally with a voice recorder, b/c I'm a "vomit everything you ever thought onto the paper and then cut it WAY WAY down" writer naturally, and I hate wasting all that typing on something that's essentially crystallization of thought, not "real" writing.)

    Anyhow, now I'm fascinated with the idea of process, and am always quizzing others about theirs in hopes of scavenging some new technique that will work.

    I am now a confirmed fan of peer-editing. However, one problem I have is that, while I have several people who read for me, they are uncomfortable with anybody reading drafts of theirs, so I never get to return the favor! I understand the feeling, because it is a very vulnerable feeling to put work that isn't top-flight yet out there to peers and colleagues. But how can we dare to ask our students to take that risk and not even know how it feels?

  4. I do use most of the strategies that I teach my students. For instance, I freewrite in a journal several times every week. (I will sometimes pull out the journal to show it to my students.) And when we freewrite in class, I always take out my journal and join in.

    I also go to a monthly writers' group, which is essentially peer review. I have talked to students about that -- what stuff I find helpful and what stuff I find annoying. (For example, it drives me nuts when I am in the rough draft stage and one of my peers starts just doing editing punctuation and stuff on my piece.)

    One year, I was working on a book review of a book we were reading in class, so I brought in the rough draft of my book review and let my students peer edit it. Their suggestions were actually very helpful.

    More recently, I have started talking to my students about blogging, because I think the discipline of writing a blog post every day has been good for my writing. The one problem is that my blog is pseudonymous and I am hesistant to reveal it to my students. So for the first time, I have this writing practice that I am sort of hiding from my students ....