Teaching Writing as a Process

Teaching Writing as a Process

Think for a moment back to your high school and junior high school days. How were you taught to write? Were you asked to write about things that mattered to you? A favorite time of day? A moment rescued from your childhood? When you were given a book to write about, were you instructed in how to brainstorm until you found a topic that interested you? When you were confronted with a controversial issue - capital punishment, for instance - were you required to work with a group of your peers, to converse and to collaborate until you could together draft a paper that represented the views of all present? Were you instructed in how to organize your ideas? Were you expected to revise your papers? Did you meet with the teacher or with your peers to talk about how you expressed yourself, as well aswhat you were saying?

If you can answer "yes" to these questions, chances are you were taught to understand writing as a process - or, to be more precise, as a series of processes including invention, drafting, assessing, and revising. Some of your tutees will have come to college with a similar understanding of writing as a process.  But some will not. Too many students have been taught to write in classrooms where teachers assigned papers, graded them, and returned them without offering students an opportunity to rethink and revise. These students will not have had the opportunity to engage in the process of staring down some important writerly questions, ranging from What do I write about? to Who is my audience? to How do I structure my essay? to What sort of language and voice should I use?

At RWIT, we embrace an approach to teaching writing that focuses on students' processes - in part because such a focus is rich with possibilities for dialogue.  Teaching writing as a process challenges traditional, authoritative models of teaching, in which professors (who know everything) talk at students (who know very little). Instead, teaching writing as a process empowers students by getting them to talk with a tutor about every step of the writing process. It is this particular kind of talk that you will be engaged in as tutors and writing assistants.

Entering a Writer's Process

Entering a writer's process can be a terrifying, trying, exhilarating ordeal. Despite the frustrations that you are bound to encounter along the way, you'll come to love the experience of sitting down with a writer, bending your heads over a paper, and wrestling an idea into language.

Still, there are some things to think about as you step with a writer into her process.

  • First, where is the writer in her writing process? Is she writing her way towards her real subject? Has she found a subject and is now searching for a structure? Or is she looking for ways to make her paragraphs work?
  • Second, where can you enter the writer's process? Do you want to discuss the writer's choice of topic? Her thesis sentence? Her essay's structure? Its style? These decisions must be made quickly (if you are a tutor) and wisely (no matter which position you've been assigned). Where you enter the writer's process determines what you can do in the hour or so that you will devote to the paper.
  • Third, how do you enter the writer's process? Entering a writer's process is a delicate matter. You must understand how vulnerable the writer is to your criticisms. Try to think of ways to praise the writer before you begin your critique of her thinking or her prose. If you are a tutor, think about your body language. If you are a writing assistant, be careful about your tone. (Be patient: we have more elaborate advice, specific to tutors and writing assistants, elsewhere in this site.)

Moving from Writer-Based to Reader-Based Prose

Some early thinkers in the field of composition drew a distinction between process-oriented and product-oriented writing. James McCrimmon saw it as the difference between writing as a way of knowing (process) and writing as a way of telling (product). Donald Murray saw it as the difference between internal and external revision (revising in order to clarify meaning for oneself vs. revising in order to clarify meaning for the reader). Linda Flower saw it as the difference between writer-based and reader-based prose. Though these theorists differ in their definitions of the distinction between process- and product-oriented writing, there is one important point upon which they all agree: good product depends on good process.  

Now of course this distinction between process and product can be a slippery one.  After all, the demands of a particular product will inform and shape one's process, and vice versa.  Nevertheless, when working with novice writers it is useful to consider this distinction between the writing students do to work out an idea for themselves (writer-based), and writing they do to work out an idea for their readers (reader-based). Often it's precisely at the point where they navigating between writer-based and reader-based prose that a writer will come to you for help. She may have a draft completed, her argument may seem logical and even persuasive, but she wants a second opinion. You read the essays and may have some trouble following the writer's lines of reasoning. You may point to a paragraph that is particularly confusing, asking what the writer is trying to say. She responds, "But it's all right there!" and goes on to summarize a point that she clearly hasn't made. What's happened? The writer's point is so firmly entrenched in her mind that she really believes that it's "in" the essay. You show her that it's not. You've just given her a lesson in the difference between writer-based and reader-based prose.  Put another way, you are giving the writer a sense of what it means to write for an audience.  

In moving student writers from writer-based to reader-based prose, we must show them how readers experience their work. Is a sentence vague? A paragraph jumbled? A word choice not quite on the mark? In talking with writers, we can share our reading responses with them, and so point them to what is and is not effective in their work.