Sometimes when I put down on a page my riveting ideas in my mind, these ideas suddenly become bland and dull. One reason behind this, I think, is that the linearity of writing works differently from our way of thinking. When I have an idea, or an image in our mind, it does not stand alone; it reverberates on a web with many potentially relevant images or ideas, close or distant. But the moment I put it down on a page, all the fascinating connections are cut off.
Sometimes I don’t have much to say when I start out writing. But putting words on a page triggers some connections I have never thought about before, and I end up having some good stuff.
One thing common in the two scenarios, I think, is to make connections, revisit connections, and find a way to present the pertinent connections in a linear way. Having an idea in mind is like ink dropping in liquid, curling, spreading, and unfolding in time, in all directions and dimensions. But writing is unlike this; it forces one to put letters from left to right, from top to bottom. This one-dimensional writing is inconsistent with thinking.
To bring these connections onto a page well usually doesn’t happen in the first round of writing. In the first round of writing, or freewriting, or “sketches,” which I’d like to call, I find myself too rushed and too overwhelmed to observe all the connections of every sentence and every claim. It isn’t until the third or fourth round that I cool down a bit and could finally examine each possibility and connection I could redraw and rearrange. So, one major task of my writing, I think, is to revisit these connections, make rearrangements, and let time unfold the connections.
Sometimes I share sample essays from an MLA handbook to show what a good essay looks like. But I always have the concern that these sample essays would fail to teach students how to get there from here. In a sample essay, each word has its fixed, appropriate position, as if this were the only version that the writer wrote. What it fails to tell is that it is not written in one shot. Admittedly, there are exceptions in history; Kate Chopin wrote rapidly and without much revision, or Rilke finished the Duino Elegies and 55 Sonnets to Orpheus in a few weeks in February 1922. But we must acknowledge that these may not be practical for us. For most of us, we still need time to revisit our writing, and let time distill the writing into a finer piece. These sample essays would be uninstructive especially for undergraduate students to understand the struggles in writing—the numerous revisions/drafts that lead to this final product, the time, the frustrations, the A-Ha moments—as if someone just simply typed in the letters in a sequence that is on the page.
The illusion may be unconsciously translated into our minds that one may produce a piece of good writing in one attempt. When I say “our” minds, I’m particularly thinking of undergraduate students who work overnight and finish their first draft before the dawn of the deadline and submit it as their final work. But I’m also thinking, how, in many courses, inappropriate or lack of scaffolding of a long paper also contributes to this mindset.
I would argue that making changes to the scaffolding doesn’t need much work. This semester, I’m teaching a writing-intensive course, in which we need to write three papers throughout the semester. I divide each paper into three stages. The first stage is called “preliminary draft” or “sketches,” in which students need to submit 1-2 pages of their writing. Instead of asking specifically for a thesis or an outline, I let them choose the most comfortable way to write: “It could be in various forms, such as a detailed outline, two or three body paragraphs, some close reading analysis, an introduction plus one or two body paragraphs, etc. It gives you some freedom in deciding how you want to approach the topic of your paper. The aim here is to get the paper going.” Students work differently towards their paper; some prefer having an outline, some love having a thesis first, and some just put down everything that comes to them. For this draft, I make minimal marking. Then a week later, I ask for a draft for peer review (2-3 pages). After peer reviewing, students will have another week to revise it into a final paper. Two to three weeks before the “sketches,” students know the prompt and could develop some thoughts through their journal entries and low-stake writings as we read texts. When they submit their paper, I also ask for a cover letter reflecting their writing process: “What are the significant changes that you made to the Essay 1 in your revision? Specify the changes you made and reflect on the changes made from preliminary draft to peer review draft, and then your final paper.”
I’m happy to find out that giving students one week for each draft and three weeks in total to complete a piece works well. When asked what they learned through the whole writing process, one wrote, “I learned there was more value in multiple drafts than I had thought, for most assignments I have a tendency to only do one draft and I could definitely see some improvements between drafts.”; another responded, “I have learned that drafts are very important and it is important to keep making changes to your writing and good writing takes time. When writing an essay it cannot be done in a day but in a course of a few days because it is important to think about what is being written and what ideas I have on the subject.” It is encouraging to know that some early planning and scaffolding, leaving enough time for students to revise and to improve through multiple drafts would benefit them. It is even more encouraging that some students realize how writers bring new connections onto a page through time and multiple attempts.