I teach about the writing process in all of my writing courses: creative writing, composition, professional writing, and communication for engineers. My belief is that a deeper understanding of the writing process helps students develop an identity as a writer, build confidence in their writing ability, and better manage the anxiety/procrastination that often comes with writing.
Beginning with free writing
I usually teach about the writing process early on (this semester, I taught it on the second day of class). The day I teach about the writing process, I begin class with either a free write or a “survey.” This semester, I began with an anonymous survey in which I asked the following:
- What kind of writer are you?
- What makes writing “good?”
- What do you want to learn in this class?
- Is there anything else you want to tell me?
(Side note: I LOVE having #4, the catch-all question. I tell students they don’t have to fill it out, and most leave it blank, but the responses I do receive are usually delightful. I skimmed answers for this semester and saw one student wrote that their “thirst for knowledge is at a peak.” Another student wrote: “I should let you know, I have had an issue with using too many commas in the past.” Students are just great.)
In the past, I’ve asked other, similar questions: What are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer? What is your history with writing? What are your thoughts and feelings about writing? What role has writing played in your life? For now, I like “What kind of writer are you?” because of its concision. It’s also an intentionally vague question.
I summarize the students’ answers to the survey and share them in our next meeting. Many students think of themselves as “bad writers,” and I think it’s good for them to realize they aren’t alone. Also, I address what they wrote they want to learn in the course, either describing how/when I will teach it, or explaining why it falls outside of what we’ll discuss, and pointing them to other resources. This process allows me to be transparent in my teaching and student-centered from week one (sometimes I build lesson plans and exercises based on what students want to learn).
When I begin my lecture about the writing process, I usually ask if any students have been formally taught the writing process before. There are usually a couple who say they have, but the majority say they haven’t. I don’t quiz the ones who raise their hands, but I do encourage them to chime in if they have any thoughts or knowledge to share as I speak.
I ask if they’ve heard of Anne Lamott. Usually they haven’t, but sometimes 1-2 students raise their hands. I tell them to excuse my language, and then explain her concept of “shitty first drafts.” Essentially, not only does everyone write shitty first drafts, but when you first begin writing something, a shitty first draft should be your only goal.
I tell them that many students who are unfamiliar with the writing process think they are “bad writers,” when in reality, they’re comparing their “shitty first draft” to published work, or work that has gone through the entire process. I like this because the swearing definitely gets their attention, but since I’m quoting someone else, it doesn’t make our classroom environment feel unprofessional or like a free-for-all.
(Side note: I generally do not swear in the classroom. I know it can be an effective attention-getting tool, but I think it’s risky. In the past, when I’ve used swear words, I’ve noticed some students appear uncomfortable, while others get a little too excited and start using more swear words themselves, neither of which is my goal.)
Next, I pull up one or both of the images in this post and project them. I then go through the stages of the writing process one-by-one.
I explain that prewriting is anything you do before you begin writing that helps you prepare to write. I’m a writer through-and-through, so for me, prewriting usually is writing. But, it’s messy writing that I’m going to delete. I might need to write for 30 minutes before I understand my thoughts and know what points I want to make, then I can begin “real” writing.
I tell them that I have a friend whose main prewriting activity is running. She mulls over what she wants to say while running 5 or 7 miles, then by the time she sits down to type, the sentences come out pretty well-formed. I have another friend who likes to draw for prewriting. That sparks their creativity, and helps them visualize their ideas.
More detail-oriented people might not feel comfortable writing until they have a full outline and know exactly what they’re setting out to do–these people would probably find my process unbearably sloppy. More social people might not want to write until they sit down and talk out their ideas with someone else.
At this point, I’ll generally ask, “Does anyone recognize what their prewriting habits are?” This semester, one student shared that he likes thinking ideas over while listening to music, then he begins writing once he feels inspired. Another student shared that he likes listening to podcasts, and jots down phrasing they use that impresses him and he thinks he could apply to his own concepts.
I explain that knowing what types of prewriting work for you might help you when you feel stuck. I emphasize that there are no “right” or “wrong” ways to prewrite, and I encourage students to experiment with different methods to see what helps them.
Drafting, writing, and revising are a recursive process, which the first image illustrates well. In the old days, writing and revising were clearly distinguishable steps. Someone would feed a paper into a typewriter, type out an entire draft, read over it with a red pen in hand, mark it up, and then retype the next draft. It was too labor-intense to revise before an entire draft was complete.
Now, with contemporary technology, it’s easy to type three paragraphs then decide the first paragraph has two unnecessary sentences, and delete them, then realize the order of paragraphs two and three should be switched, and flip them. Most writers write, revise, and even edit continually as they go. This can be efficient, or it can hold someone back, especially if they’re feeling stuck or anxious or bad about the writing in any way.
In my creative writing courses, I urge students to try separating writing from revision. I mention Jennifer Egan as an example. When I saw her speak, she said that if she rereads what she is writing while she is writing, it brings her down. She begins to think she’s a horrible writer and that the project is garbage. That’s why she writes by hand, sloppily, in a dark room. Not until she gets out an entire draft does she go back and read over it.
Writing and revising can be two distinct modes. Personally, I find that when I am in the “generative” phase of creative writing and still figuring out my ideas, it’s best if I don’t reread what I’m writing until later. Then I can come back with my revision glasses on and look for what isn’t working well. If I view my work with a critical eye while I’m still writing it, I’m at risk of giving up. I, and my students, feel better knowing that a bestselling author such as Jennifer Egan experiences the same thing.
I don’t always go into as much detail about this writing/revising dichotomy in my professional writing courses, unless students seem particularly stuck or are struggling to get words on the page. I think writing and revising at the same time can be useful when writing an email, letter, memo, or short professional document, unless for some reason the document has the writer paralyzed with anxiety.
I do emphasize to professional writing students that they should expect to reread their documents and make changes multiple times, even if they’re doing so quickly, and that they never want to share something or even send an email without rereading.
I note that they can bring someone else in to give advice at this stage of the process, and that in some workplaces, sharing a draft of documents with their superior would be required. I tell them to prepare themselves to have to alter their writing process slightly depending on the company they work for. Some bosses won’t want an employee to write anything until they’ve discussed it thoroughly; others won’t want to see anything but a finished product.
I explain the differences between editing, revising, and proofreading, and let them know that many people use the words interchangeably or incorrectly. I say that revising is the hard work; it can involve major cuts, reorganization, or rewriting. Revision involves looking at the big picture.
Editing, while still sometimes difficult, is a look at the surface. It might involve rewording a sentence, or reordering sentences within a paragraph, but beyond that, it doesn’t involve deep changes. Editing includes correcting spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors, and rephrasing for clarity.
Proofreading is the final, last-minute look-over you give something when it’s ready to go but you want to be super sure there aren’t any lingering typos you missed.
I tell students that we will do workshopping (in creative writing) or peer review (in composition and professional writing) in class, and that I want them to feel comfortable gently telling their peers when they need to make revisions. I say that most students feel much more comfortable pointing out spelling errors, or missing commas or apostrophes than they do saying that one of the main threads is illogical, or that multiple paragraphs feel redundant and extraneous.
I tell them that I want to expand their definition of “publishing.” I ask what publishing might look like in the context of a class. Generally, a student answers (correctly), “Turning something in to you?”
I ask what “publishing” might look like in the workplace. I keep asking for responses until someone comes up with “hitting send on an email.” I say yes!, that is it, also: mailing a letter, printing out an announcement and hanging it on the wall, sending the employee manual off to the printer, etc.
Finally, I ask if there are any questions or comments. We don’t usually have a big discussion about the writing process, but sometimes students speak up to either ask for advice or share what works for them.
Oftentimes, procrastination comes up at this point. I tell students that procrastination is often the result of anxiety–we put writing off because we fear we will do a bad job, or we fear the writing will feel painful. I bring up Anne Lamott’s “shitty first draft” idea again, and remind them that there’s no way to fail at the goal of writing a shitty first draft, and setting out to write a shitty first draft can actually be really fun.
I tell them that if they think they write better under pressure, hours before something is due, they are mistaken. (Usually a few students laugh, or nod, or raise their hand to comment here.) I tell them I was an undergrad once too, and I also thought I wrote better under pressure, but then I learned the reality is that I write better when I’m focused on my writing instead of my fear. Waiting until the last minute is one way to force yourself to focus on the writing; embracing the “shitty first draft” concept is another, more productive way.
I usually end by saying, think of what you come up with in an hour when you’re working under pressure. Image how much happier you’d feel if you could come up with that in an hour one week before the due date, then have time to gain some distance and perspective and do more revising and editing before turning that work in.