Writing is a road trip

A moment of horror in the copy room. That’s where this post started.

A moment of horror borne of another instructor’s handout, one that simultaneously reduced and universalized the writing “process” to a tick sheet of dos, don’ts, and otherwise. Writing is a formula, this handout shouted, one that I, as your instructor, have licked. Follow these steps, do exactly as I say though I don’t explain why, and I’ll give you an A.

I wish that I’d saved it, this castoff from another classroom, but at the time, all I wanted to do was escape it.

As a writer, as someone who teaches writing, I see composition as a road trip: you point the car in a general direction and let the road take you where it may.

Sure, you might have some idea of where you want to end up–you might choose a particular highway to take over another, after all–but you’re open to diversions, to side trips off of what you thought was the main route. And you’re willing to let those diversions rewrite your travel plans entirely.

Such an approach, however, doesn’t neatly line up with the ways in which many instructors teach writing as a “process.” While early discussions of writing-as-process made note of the messiness involved, much of that acknowledgement has been stripped away in the professionalization/commodification of composition. In place of such mess, a process designed for a flow chart, for easy replicability in any classroom, with any students, any instructor, because of course, all writers—especially first year writers!–are alike.


Yeah, no. No no no.

One of those steps in the “process” that makes me particularly enraged is forcing students to write a “thesis statement” before they start writing an essay. See also: the horrifying “write a topic sentence for each paragraph before you start writing the essay” variant.

Let’s talk for a second about why this tactic often frustrates the crap out of students and, bonus, results in boring, slack-tastic writing:

Look, when you put these restrictions on students’ writing, you’re reinforcing the idea that a writer should know exactly what she or he wants to say before they sit down at the keyboard. You are preventing a student from writing, period.

Yes, in order to be successful, student writers often need a well-defined sandbox to play in; sometimes, the more room you give them to run, the harder it is for them to get started. But you should build those fences in order to foster expression, not restrict it.

That is, the boundaries you define for your students should be related to the content of what you’re asking them to write about, not the format in which they do it.

Let me give you an example.

The first assignment I give students in a first year, first semester composition class is made up of two parts: a Spontaneous Sensory Monologue and a Composed Observation, both inspired by James Moffat’s work in Active Voices: A Writing Program Across the Curriculum.

The first step in this sequence, the Monologue, puts specific temporal and spatial restrictions on the students’ writing while allowing them to choose the format their composition takes.

Choose a place off campus that you would like to observe. Go there with your green notebook and a pen. For 15 minutes, write down what you see, hear, and smell. Think of what you write as notes for yourself later.

Don’t worry for now about spelling or correct sentences; write in whatever way allows you to capture on paper what you observe, hear, or experience during that time.

You may also include your thoughts and feelings about what you observe. You may also want to say what things look, sound, or smell like.

(Note: the “green notebook” mentioned here is a journal I ask students to keep for class.)

Many of my students LOVE this assignment because they feel it gives them the room to write freely. I’ve had quite a few tell me that this was the first time they’d ever “just written” without worrying about what was going on the page.

In this case, delimiting both the time the students have devote to the assignment and the location where it must be completed gives students a sense of freedom.

This assignment gives writers a chance to make some choices–about what location they choose to observe and the manner in which they record those observations–while, in turn, making other choices for them: how long they have to write for, what they are writing about, and even where they should write it (that is, in their notebook).

The sense of freedom that some students experience, then, is a result not of a free for all, nor of restriction; rather, it’s a result of a careful balance of the two, one designed to encourage the students to put words on the page, period.

The second half of the assignment, the Composed Observation, asks students to take the raw materials they’ve generated in the Monologue and shape them into a form that can be appreciated by an audience, by someone who isn’t them.

Choose one of your sensory monologues and rewrite it in any way that you think will make it more understandable to someone who hasn’t seen this place, or observed these people, or had an experience like the one that you recorded in your notebook.

Your objective is not to “accurately” recreate the scene for you reader—this is an impossible task. Rather, your goal is to use your own writing to make some sense of the observations you made, the feelings you felt, and the assumptions that you made about the space or persons that you observed.

What connections can you draw between your ideas and/or observations? How can you transform your notes, lists, or diagrams into a more constructed text so that your reader can begin to see, understand, and appreciate these connections?

Feel free to add, subtract, rearrange, reword, or reconstruct your sensory monologue as an essay, a story, or a poem.

Bring 4 types copies of your Observation with you to class.

A few things to note:

1) First, without naming it as such, this assignment requires students to enact writing as a process. That is, the content they generate in the first step forms the raw material of the second. In order to create a piece that’s more “composed”—that is, designed for an audience other than the writer herself—the writer first has to write messy, to put words on paper that are meant for her alone. In this way, without it being stated explicitly, the Monologue serves as the first draft of the Observation.

2) To complete the assignment, she must think through issues critical to rhetorical awareness: ok, if the purpose of this piece is to communicate some of what I experienced to an audience who’s unfamiliar with this location, the people I observed, etc., then what elements do I need to included, and which can I remove? What does my audience need from me as a writer into order to appreciate some part of what I observed and experience in this location?

Sharing their Observation with their colleagues in class helps students to determine how successful their choices were. They then use the feedback they receive from their peers and, to a lesser extent, from me, to craft a final draft of the Observation which they turn in for formal assessment.

3) The borders of the Observation are quite different—and yet still connected–to those of the Monologue. Here, the restrictions on the students’ writing, as it were, are directly related to their audience awareness. That is, although have some choice as to the form that their Observation takes, I’ve defined the task that their Observation needs to accomplish: to communicate some part of their experience to an audience unfamiliar with the location they observed. Further, students aren’t asked to start the Observation from scratch; rather, they have a first draft to work with: their Monologue.

4) Finally, the concept of transformation is key. That what writers do, in large part: transform their observations or thoughts or analysis into a form that people who are not them can appreciate and understand. Indeed, the ability to effect such a transformation is particularly critical (and yet often underemphasized) in academic writing.

In giving these two assignments, then, I’m asking students to enact elements of the writing process writ large without universalizing that process. To do this, I craft two separate but connected sandboxes for students to play in. In each assignment, I take some of their freedom away—I tell them how long to devote to their writing, where they should put their thoughts, what they should be writing about. In removing those choices, however, I give the students the freedom to make OTHER, more important choices that encourage them to put words on the page.

As a teacher, my goal is always to show students that writing is a process, not a flow chart. Writing is a road trip, not a direct flight.

But this kind of shit doesn’t fit real well on a check sheet, nor is it easy for me to explain and/or illustrate in my syllabi. Maybe this is part of the reason (one of many?) that I’m having trouble getting a job teaching writing.

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