Southwest Tennessee Community College Composition Lessons & Resources John Friedlander
UNDERSTANDING WRITING AS A PROCESS
Overview of the Writing Process
I hate yard work. I know I should do it. My grass is high and raggedy, the bushes are overgrown, and the only reason I don't see weeds is because I haven't raked the leaves that cover them. The idea of all that bending and pulling and raking and bagging and trimming and sweeping makes me shudder, and usually glues me to a chair in front of a television. When I see my neighbor's neat yard--the lawn deeply green, crisply edged and completely weed free; the mulched flower beds crowded with healthy greenery and colorful blooms--I figure my neighbor has to be an alien. He's out there almost every day, puttering around, and he's always in a good mood about it.
I force myself into the yard two or three times a season, struggle non-stop for two or three ugly days to make the yard barely presentable, then limp back into the house to nurse my resentment. My neighbor seems never to face my yard work marathons--just fifteen minutes here, an hour there, a showplace yard, and a clear conscience. I think he has some kind of gardening gene that I didn't get, and I think I hate him.
Lots of people feel about writing the way I feel about yard work. The idea of writing a report or a necessary letter looks purely ugly; they put it off as long as they can, and finally put in some cranky hours only when they can't put it off any longer.
You can see where I'm going with this, can't you?
I know that if I started my yard work a little sooner and did a little bit every day or so, like Mr. Goody Two-Shoes across the driveway, I'd end up with easier work, less hostility and a better looking yard. You can do the same with writing. Get a prompt start, do just a little bit at a time, and you'll have less work, less hostility, and better writing. I know it's true and so do you.
The main thing I hope to give you in this course is a method and a habit for approaching writing in a fairly systematic way that takes some of the mystery out of it, cuts down on some of the drudgery and anxiety, and leads to consistently decent writing and some degree of confidence.
Another way to look at this is to distinguish the process approach from the product approach. In the process approach, you worry only about working on the current step in the process--you don't worry too much about the product itself, because the process will take care of it. In the product approach, you worry chiefly about the product--but there are so many different elements in a good essay that it seems impossible to juggle them all at once, and you worry about consequences even before you begin working.
To pick up on the yard work analogy (which I'm not just making up), the product approach is part of what stops me--I look at all the work involved in improving the yard, and I'm intimidated at the start. Besides that, I'm convinced that I'll never have a yard that looks like my neighbor's, so why should I invest any regular effort in it? So I put off any effort until things are too bad to ignore, then burn myself out in a miserable weekend that yields mediocre results. I'm more convinced than ever that I don't have whatever genes lead to a pretty yard, and I go for the easier rewards of television viewing. Do you ever have experiences like that with writing?
I can't make you practice what I preach about approaching writing as a process (anymore than my wife can get me to copy Mr. Green Genes over there), but I can show you how to do it. And if you do practice what I teach you, your writing will get better and easier--though you'll still have to put in the time.
You'll be reading material in Troyka and Decker describing the Writing Process, and you can find similar advice all over the place. I'll describe it simply here, and you can look around other sources later for more details or other ways of labeling things. Here's an outline of the process as I see it. (You'll want to memorize this now, then build understanding as you work with it.) Further explanations follow the outline--and I'll be providing still more material later on.
A. Invention and/or discovery
B. Direction or organization
The general idea is that you break all of the complex elements of an essay down into simpler steps, and deal with only one step at a time. This should reduce anxiety and lead to consistently better products--without worrying about the product itself.
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In the prewriting step, you get some stuff to work with and plan some kind of direction. Nothing you do here has to appear in the finished essay. It doesn't have to be complete or perfect in any way. You just want a foundation for later steps. Don't worry about the actual essay. Just get some stuff to work with and some sense of direction. Decker and Troyka and I will show you ways to do this, and you'll practice the two or three methods that work best for you.
Invention and Discovery
Your first step in the process is getting stuff to work with--ideas, examples, words. You can't write until you have something to say, so you begin by getting some stuff to work with.
[Caution: getting stuff to work with is not the same as getting everything you need; getting ideas is not the same as finding the final thesis for your essay. Writing is a process of learning and change and discovery. You have to begin, and you have to move in a useful direction, but you don't have to know at the start just how the essay is going to turn out. Good writing is seldom just putting down on paper what is already in your head; most of the time, the writing process changes what's in your head; in the best writing, you will know or understand more when you're finished than you did when you began.]
I think of invention as drawing out resources you already have in your imagination or memory, and a lot of techniques help you do this. You can try brainstorming, listing, freewriting, focused freewriting, forced writing, sense mapping, journalists' questions, clustering. These are methods you can learn and practice easily.
[I'll explain and demonstrate many of these techniques later. Many of them are explained and demonstrated in standard English handbooks and composition readers. Another really fine source for this material (and much more) is the topic, "Discovering What to Write" at the Paradigm website <http://www.idbsu.edu/english/cguilfor/paradigm>].
I think of discovery as finding resources outside yourself, such as books or magazines or newspapers, or local experts.
Through invention and discovery, you gather enough material to move forward with confidence. How much material you need at this point varies with the writer, the topic and the audience, but it's usually better to have too much rather than too little. And remember that when you're gathering material, you're not yet writing anything that others will judge, and there will be other opportunities to get more material and to pick and choose from what you have already gathered.
When this works right, you have fun finding stuff without worrying about the product (some people keep gathering way more stuff than they need, because the gathering seems easier than the writing to come--but most of us benefit from gathering more). When this initial gathering is finished, you have a lot of stuff to work with, so you feel more confident that the essay (or report or letter or whatever) is actually starting to develop. This experience is way better than staring at a blank sheet of paper for hours, or staring at the ceiling, or imagining that watching a little television or catching a nap will somehow help.
The second part of prewriting is finding some direction or organization. Before you can move on to an actual draft, you need to choose someplace to start, or someplace to end, or some point you think belongs in the middle. Sometimes you may want or need a detailed plan, but other times it's enough to have a rough sense of a few key points. It's not essential to have your thesis firmly set, or even an idea for your introduction, but you do need enough to string some sentences and paragraphs together.
When the topic is simple or familiar, you may get enough direction from a simple list of three or four key words; with more complex or unfamiliar topics, you may save later time by developing a fuller outline. Thinking about your purpose and audience is often a key part of finding early direction.
Okay--you haven't put anything on paper that anyone else will read or judge. You haven't made any mistakes that you can't fix. You've got stuff to talk about, and some sense of the direction you're going to take. Writing a draft should be easier now.
Boredom/Overload Alert: If you've been reading straight through from the beginning of this page, you could be getting bored or tired, and you may want to take a brief break. Go ahead and do that--this is a good spot for a break. Even if you're feeling fine and just sailing along, though, I want you to see something. On this page you're reading an overview of the whole writing process. When you read about this stuff in your handbook or reader, your may find forty pages of this stuff--or maybe seventy! It's easy to feel overwhelmed, and to conclude that there's just too much work involved in writing, and no real human being would go through all these steps. But this reading experience is not the same as the writing experience. The writing process lets you do lots of steps in little five- and ten-minute stages, and it lets you worry about just one step (or part of one step) at a time. Reading and studying an overview of the process is like trying to do it all at once. Don't let it intimidate you!
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You'll be thrilled to know that I don't have much to say about drafting--just a couple of key points.
The first key point is that a draft is NOT an attempt to produce a finished essay. When I was in high school, we often wrote "rough drafts." What that meant to me and most of my friends was that we wrote out the essay sloppy, then copied it neat. the two versions were virtually the same. But that is not what real drafting is about. The goal of a draft is to build your resources. You've already found stuff and some direction, so you can write what looks like an essay, or a big hunk of it--but you're NOT hoping to produce a real essay in this step. You're trying to start the writing and build some momentum, let your mind and your writing pull you along, get a lot of material down in sentence and paragraph forms, and then see what you've got to work with. I want you to view the draft in much the same way you view your prewriting--it's just a collection of resources. When you finish your draft, you go back through it, looking for what is working and for what isn't working.
The second key point is the same as the first one, but I'm going to say it differently: don't try to defend your draft. If you think of your draft as a chance to finish the essay without any more work (please, please, please!), you'll want to believe it's just fine the way it is. Instead of looking objectively for what's working and for what needs work, you'll look for reasons why it's already good enough. But it seldom is. Here's a simple piece of advice: write your draft in one sitting, then put it away for at least 24 hours. When you look at it later, your labor and your thinking will not be so fresh in your mind, and you're much more likely to what's worth keeping and what's worth changing, and what's worth throwing away. That's what a draft is for.
If you read that last paragraph thoughtfully, you'll see a natural implication for the writing process: you need to start early to give your writing and thinking a chance to grow. You can't put your draft aside for 24 hours if it's already near midnight and the essay (or letter or report) is due tomorrow at 8:00 a.m. We'll talk later about how you cope with time pressures--sometimes you have only 2 hours for the whole process--but for now we'll keep the focus on how to follow the process the right way. The first step is to start early.
After finishing a draft, you're further along. You still haven't made any mistakes that you can't fix. You've probably got more stuff to talk about, and a better sense of the direction you're going to take. You can also see that you have something to say, and that some kind of essay is going to come out of this. A lot of your anxiety should be out of the way by now, and you're ready to start the real work.
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I remember reading about some famous author who had completed a 500-page manuscript of a novel; he remarked to a friend that he was glad that much was done, because now he was ready to write. Lots of writers make the point that real writing is rewriting. Understanding that may be the most important step toward becoming a really confident and consistent writer.
Look at where you are in the process--you've accomplished a lot. You've gathered a lot of stuff, ideas and evidence, established a sense of direction, and even written what looks likes an essay. You know you have something to say, and probably better understand what you want to say. You can look at your draft and see that some points are already in good shape, and you can see what needs changing. Now you take a fresh look and begin the work that rough ideas into polished ones.
Revising is the first step in rewriting. This re-vision is a new seeing of the material; it's a focus on content or thinking. You look to see if your ideas still seem to make sense. Maybe one seems solid, another seems close, a third looks like a repetition of the first. You reword, or redefine or rethink until your ideas are clear and sensible. But you're not starting over! You have all of the thinking that you've done in the other steps of the process, and that thinking helps you see and understand better at this stage. Then you look at your organization. Would it help to move the third point to the second position? Is the movement from point one to point two smooth and logical? How about the order of points in a given paragraph--could they be rearranged for a better effect? Finally, is the evidence good--are there enough examples or details to make each idea clear? enough to make each idea convincing? When you find problems, fix them. When you find things that work well, celebrate!
If this looks like work to you, you're right. It is work, and it takes time. But think about where you are in the process. You already know that you have something to say, and you know that you're getting closer and closer, and you're sure you'll have something to turn in. You're in a much more comfortable place than you were at the beginning. With so much already done, its easier to put in more effort--you can already see some of the results. And it is in doing this step that you really find out what you have to say! [Have you ever been in a conversation, drifting this way, drifting that, repeating the same point, slipping off on tangents, and then finally said what you were really feeling, come up with some idea that surprises and pleases you? That's what happens in revision.]
Editing is your next step--once you've got the content in good shape, you look for more effective expression. Maybe you could choose a more accurate or more vivid word here; maybe you could cut out some of that passive voice; maybe you can add or change a transition to make the movement between two paragraphs or two sentences a little smoother or clearer; maybe you can work for a little more variety in the types of sentences you're writing. You're looking at details here, really polishing. Maybe you can't imagine working on your writing at this level, checking every sentence and nearly every word. But if you've already got your content where you really want it, you find some extra pleasure in polishing it (especially because what you've got is already good--you know you have something good to offer a reader. Why not shine it up a little, show your pride?
[I remember watching with amazement as my wife cleaned some edges of a kitchen mixer with toothpicks and Q-tips--she's no neatnik, and neither am I, so it looked really extreme. When I asked her about it, she agreed that it seemed strange, but when she'd cleaned most of it in a fairly sloppy way, the mixer looked a lot better, so she cleaned it a little more, and then, well, she just got into it. Although it seems contrary to my true nature, I've done the same sort of thing with yard work. I'd just run the mower over the yard, but the clumps were too ugly, so I went over it again with a grass catcher. Then it looked pretty good, but the edges looked sloppy in comparison, so I actually trimmed the edges with a weed whacker. Here's the weird part: when I looked at it later, the yard really looked good, and I couldn't help noticing a couple of spots the weed whacker missed, and I actually dug out some hand trimmers and fixed those spots. This isn't any kind of regular thing with me--but I did make my kids come out and look at the lawn with me.]
Proofreading is all that's left. After getting the essay (or letter or report) in such good shape, you don't want some mistake distracting your reader from the good work you've done; you don't want the reader to look at your spelling or your grammar or your typing--you want the reader to appreciate your thinking! So you go back over your work and pick up any trash you've left behind. Often you get others to help with this, but we'll talk later about some simple techniques to help you proofread more efficiently.
A Closing Reminder
Get the ideas of process and time into your mind. Each of the steps in the process works better--gives less pain and more satisfaction--if you keep the steps separate. Do some invention; then let things rest awhile. Do some organizing; then let things rest awhile. Write a draft; let it rest a good while. Do some revising; then let it rest. Then edit. Then proofread. Each step makes the next step easier, and the rests in between help you see better and work better.
With practice, you'll make this process your own. You'll find success with it, you'll develop confidence with it.
more to come . . .
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