Teaching Writing: Nobody Knows the Rules, Just Write

An earlier post, “Perceiving Writing as a Process, Not a Product”, began with a potentially apocryphal quote by a well-known author. In that spirit, I would like to start and end this post with two potentially apocryphal quotes by well-known authors. The quotes may be fabricated, but I think that the insights are real.

Somerset Maugham, the author of one of my favorite novels, was quoted as having told the students of a class on English literature “there are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

I’ve never tried to write a novel, so I can’t say with certainty whether Maugham (if he ever said such a thing) is right. But I’ve tried to write plenty of papers, and on that subject I’m certain: if there are three rules for writing a paper, no one knows what they are.

This has turned out to be a bit of a problem for me, because part of what I’m trying to do as an instructor is to teach writing. Sometimes it’s pretty clear that students want me to tell them the rules for paper-writing that they need to follow in order to be successful. They want the writing equivalent of a mathematical formula: take your idea, apply these rules, and BAM! Good writing.

I completely understand that desire. Heck, I want those rules too. But unfortunately, as Maugham allegedly observed, no one knows the rules for writing. I certainly don’t know of any rules that are necessary for good writing. For any writing rule I’ve ever been told (“don’t end a sentence with a preposition”; “avoid run on sentences”; “avoid repetitive phrasings”, etc.) I can find several examples of great writing that break that rule. I also don’t know of any rules that are sufficient for good writing. A paper might follow all the “best practice” rules and guidelines in the world, and still be unclear and confusing to read.

So what then, as an instructor, can I do to help my students who want me to teach them rules for writing that I just don’t have?

The answer, or at least the answer I’ve come to accept, is to get them to write. This doesn’t mean getting them to write more or longer term papers, but getting them to write constantly and in different contexts: write out their ideas, write down questions they have about readings, write notes and questions about what they’ve already written, write responses to what their classmates have written, etc. I can help my students learn the writing skills they need by teaching them to think of writing as a tool, and then teaching them to use that tool as often as they can.

I can’t speak for everyone. But when I write papers, I find that for every page of the finished paper, there are about 3 legal pads full of handwritten notes, questions, false starts, and half-baked ideas that eventually (after a long recursive process) end up fully baked. The finished paper full of polished writing owes everything it has to the pile of informal writing that came before it. And each polished paper owes an awful lot to all of the writing that came before it, both formal and informal. Having more writing experience has never made anyone a worse writer.

I don’t think I’m alone is using a process like this. But I didn’t learn to use this sort of process until graduate school. College students often don’t think of writing in this way, and one of the best ways we can help them learn writing skills is by getting them to start using writing as a tool in both formal and informal contexts.

WAC pedagogy has a ton of useful methods for doing this. Freewriting, exploratory writing, scaffolding, problem-oriented assignment design, etc. Bean’s “Engaging Ideas” is full of them, and the other posts on this site are chock-full of discussions of different methods and ideas on this subject. I have personally found them very helpful, and I doubt I’m the only one. I think it’s a good place to start for anyone looking for ideas on how to engage students in this sort of recursive writing process.

So even if we can’t give students Maugham’s three rules for writing, we can help them by giving them writing experience, and specifically giving them experience using informal writing as a tool to develop ideas and to develop formal papers.

And maybe, just maybe, it turns out that we do know the three rules for writing after all. In what is almost certainly a fabricated quote, Mark Twain supposedly said: “there are but three rules for writing. Namely, first, write; second, write; third, write.”

I suspect that the best thing we can do to help our students with their writing is to teach them to stop looking for Maugham’s three rules, and to start following Twain’s.

Multimodal Thinking and Writing

Any educator would agree, I think, that course planning is a perpetual exercise of trial and error. For me, this has been especially true when it comes to finding innovative and dynamic ways to  engage students in reading, thinking, and writing about academic texts. Part of the challenge in my case is that I teach about language, a social practice about which everyone has an opinion, and media, a ubiquitous mechanism of social interaction. Abstract ideas about what language and media are and how people use them are so naturalized that it can be difficult to facilitate critical consciousness of them, let alone their deconstruction through the discipline of anthropology. Since starting the WAC fellowship, I’ve been learning about how to encourage deep engagement with the course material through consistent and diverse writing assignments. As I prepare to teach about language and media again next semester, I’ve been thinking specifically about the affordances of multimodality in the thinking and writing process, especially after almost two years of teaching and learning online due to the pandemic.  

Over the past couple years, I’ve taught a class called Texting & Talking, a linguistic and media anthropology course that explores the differences between face-to-face and mediated communication, and the role of media in language and vice versa. We study everything from radio talk to gossip columns to breaking up with your partner via social media. As you might imagine, students usually have lots to say about these topics. Our in-class discussions are usually quite lively and students often share interesting personal anecdotes about how they and their communities use language on and offline (which I welcome and value!). However, I’ve noticed that this level of deep engagement does not always translate the students’ formal writing assignments, in which I ask them to decipher and make arguments through anthropological concepts. This has been an ongoing struggle for me as I teach, revise, and teach again. 

In an effort to address this disconnect towards the end of my first semester teaching the course, I switched things up and created a final assignment that mirrored a typical final research paper, but that could be completed in any modality the student chose. I provided examples, such as a formal presentation, a letter, a podcast episode, a video essay, a recorded conversation between students, a face-to-face conversation with me, a series of Tweets, or a typical written assignment, but the students were encouraged to propose other modalities that aligned with their preferred method to communicate the information. While there were specific requirements (references to course material, an analysis of a mediated or face-to-face linguistic routine, etc.), the assignment was open-ended and shaped by each student’s interest. My idea was that breaking away from the rigid structure of a final paper might give the students the opportunity to express the clarity I witnessed during class sessions, and I thought this approach modeled what I preached about complicating certain conventions of language use. Some students ran with the opportunity and crafted interesting and well-developed multimodal research assignments; for others, the open-ended structure and creative invitation caused confusion and anxiety and many ultimately chose to write a typical paper. I realized throughout the process that the assignment was far too unstructured to yield the deep critical engagement I had envisioned, and that I hadn’t provided my students with the proper tools to complete the assignment successfully.

Halfway through the second iteration of the course, the pandemic hit and my course became asynchronous, which presented obvious challenges to constructing a sense of community and creating online space for students to discuss and learn from each other. Although I imagined this would largely happen through written text given the circumstances, I looked for ways to diversify class participation. I found a free, web-based blogging platform called Padlet that ended up being the perfect virtual space for us to interact. Each week I posed two questions to the class, one about that week’s readings and another inviting students to share their personal experiences with the same topic. What was particularly fruitful about using Padlet was that it allows for text, audio, video, and image, and participants can interact through likes and comments. So, although it was a private site that only our class had access to, it looked more like a social media platform than a formal class discussion board. I encouraged my students to lean in to what that meant for their writing on the Padlet; I explicitly allowed for informal writing, emojis, internet slang, memes, TikToks, or any other genre of language that helped the student express their response to the week’s prompt. The results were exciting. The students took the opportunity to be creative in their class participation, and many of the students who were timid in person were more vocal and participatory online. Throughout the semester I was impressed by how this constant engagement with the course material through writing and/or multimodal creation had clear implications on the students’ ability to articulate complex anthropological analyses about media and language. Even so, I was still left with the sensation that I overemphasized informal writing, and my assignments did not encourage enough development in their formal writing skills.

As I prepare the next version of Texting & Talking, which I’ll teach next semester, I am using WAC pedagogy to address my concerns from each of the previous classes in my syllabus design. I’m specifically looking to scaffold the assignments in ways that not only equally prioritize informal and formal writing, but see them as integrally related. To do so, I’ve created two semester-long writing assignments: a reading log, which requires formal writing practice through weekly prompts about the readings, and a media journal, which is designed to practice informal and multimodal writing through ethnographic data collection. The former is basically a formal notebook, where each student will have documented, written engagement with each week’s course material. The latter is an informal and multimodal guided ethnographic field notebook, where the students are asked to provide thick descriptions of their media usage (including screenshots, links, videos, accounts, etc.) throughout the semester. The two combined are the basis for the students’ final assignment, which is an autoethnography about how each student uses mediated and face-to-face language. The reading log will help the students construct the literature review section of the ethnography, and the media journal is the data they will analyze linguistically. I believe these continuous assignments will encourage and incentivize students to prioritize the process of writing over the product and improve their writing throughout the semester as a result. And if they don’t, or not as much as I’d hoped, I’ll have to try again! 

WAC pedagogy teaches us how to use writing to promote critical thinking and facilitate deeper student engagement, and provides us with pedagogical tools to implement these ideas in our classrooms. I’m interested in thinking about how multimodal thinking and writing can enhance WAC pedagogy, especially in the context of our current moment when our reliance on mediated forms of communication and knowledge has intensified and our student populations have shifted. In a classroom of digital natives and media addicts (myself included), how can the incorporation of multimodal thinking and writing invite a different kind of student participation? What do we, as educators, have to lose, if anything, by embracing seemingly informal, mediated forms of knowledge production? What might our students manage to gain?

Modelling a Discipline and Delaying Closure in WAC Pedagogy

In Engaging Ideas, our WAC textbook, John C. Bean proposes that a “problem-driven model” of writing instruction draws on practices in the academic disciplines in order to reimagine the usual “think-then-write” approach to composition. Bean suggests that orienting writing assignments around a problem or question, rather than asking students to decide on a guiding thesis statement early on, can extend the process of exploration, much the way it does for scholars participating in written and verbal conversations, producing sketches and reflections, partial and complete drafts. In fact, the thesis often arises within that process of exploration: “A thesis statement often marks a moment of discovery and clarification—an “aha!” experience (“So this is my point!  Here is my argument in a nutshell!”) rather than a formulaic planning device at the very start of the process” (Bean 34). As I’ve become more familiar with Bean’s approach, I’ve noticed a lot of overlap with the way writing is taught in the high school English department at Friends Seminary, a Quaker school in Manhattan where I taught for three years before entering the English PhD program at the Graduate Center. I want think about the practical application of some aspects of Bean’s model by taking a close look at the way I learned to teach writing to ninth graders at Friends. I think to do this well, I’ll have to go into some detail, so apologies in advance for that. If it becomes tedious, just skip to the last two or three paragraphs!

Over the past ten to fifteen years, instructors at Friends have developed—and continue to modify—a formal model for writing instruction, a set of fixed terms and procedures, for deriving arguments from close readings figurative language in literary texts. In ninth grade, students begin by learning to produce simple units of analysis of very short, figurative passages, usually no more than a phrase or a sentence, from the first text covered in the Fall semester, Genesis in the King James or Robert Alter translation. For each unit of analysis, instructors ask students to give a sentence of context, situating the passage within the scene at hand; then another sentence presenting the quoted text itself; another to observe the meaning of a pivotal word or phrase in context; and finally a sentence asserting an implication of that meaning for the narrative—maybe something about a character’s attitude, the meaning of an action, or the nature of a belief. This basic unit analysis is called a “sequence of analysis.” In later assignments, students practice synthesizing the findings of two or three sequences of analysis to form a substantial analytic paragraph. Towards the end of the first semester, they will write a four-paragraph essay—three paragraphs of analysis and a conclusion paragraph—on Macbeth.

Students begin the essay-writing process by choosing a big question about one of the play’s major concerns that have emerged in class discussion, e.g., “What does Shakespeare’s Macbeth suggest about political titles?” “…about women?” “…about visions and dreams?” For each question, the instructor will provide a short, relevant passage from the play. The first scaffolded assignment will be to give a sequence of analysis on this starter passage, drawing out an implication or two that in some way begins to answer the big question the student has chosen. In the next assignment, students conduct a passage search, casting a wide net for moments in the play that, like the starter passage, might lead to an answer to their big question. For each of these, they give a preliminary or loose sequence of analysis bearing on their question.

To be clear, at this point students have not arrived at an answer to that question. They are still in the exploratory phase of the writing process. Instructors ask them to collect and analyze more relevant passages than they think they will ultimately need, because gathering evidence is not an exercise in shoring up a fixed position, but rather a good-faith inquiry into the question at hand–a study of what, in fact, Macbeth has to say about political titles, or women, or visions and dreams. When it comes time to decide which moments to focus on, students are encouraged not to select passages that could easily be yoked together to reiterate a flat answer to their question—”Macbeth suggests women can act like men”—but rather to include passages whose implications seem to complicate whatever tendency the student has begun to notice, or that raise further questions—Does Lady Macbeth, in fact act, “like a man?” What about Lady Macduff? What does it mean to “act like a man” in this play? Going through this process of provisional passage selection, students will begin to develop a rough sense of an answer to their question, but it really won’t be until they’ve drafted all three paragraphs of analysis and compared and synthesized the full range of their findings in the conclusion that they will articulate a thesis statement.

In this way, both the writing process and the essay structure are designed to delay the closure of a final assertion. The four-paragraph essay has no introduction in the usual sense—no statement of the topic, no guiding thesis, no argument synopsis. The first paragraph begins immediately with analysis of contextualized language and closes, not with a thesis, but with the essay’s guiding question, raised by the initial close reading. Similarly, the following two analysis paragraphs begin immediately with analysis—no topic sentences or claims. At a later stage, students will be encouraged to make a transition at the beginnings of their paragraphs, but for now they are asked to get right to the analysis and wait for close of the paragraph to synthesize their assertions and make a larger claim that begins to answer the essay’s guiding question.

I’ve been told that topic sentences, introductory theses and argument synopses, and other measures of enforcing closure early on in the writing process keep students “on topic.” This may be true, and approaches that delay closure may risk allowing students’ analysis to meander. But the encouragement to inquire into tricky, conflicting meanings and risk being confused, rather than simply prove a canned thesis, sometimes gives students room to work out remarkable accounts of textual complexity, or in other words, to think critically. Other times, that extra room leaves students stumped by the contradictory implications of their analysis–they may restate inconclusive findings or grasp at a reductive thesis that doesn’t do justice to their work. Still other times, students’ analysis is too general or under developed to lead to much of a statement at all. To me, any of these outcomes is preferrable to a premature claim justified by convenient evidence because, compared to that, all of them suggest an attempt at something like genuine intellectual inquiry.

This approach to scaffolding and delaying closure, with its emphasis on close reading, is especially suited to the study of figurative language and the supposedly unified structures of literary texts, usually plays, poems, and novels. I don’t think it would be as useful even in the proximate disciplines of the humanities, say, history or philosophy. Furthermore, the conventions of  academic writing in other disciplines do often prescribe a thesis and argument sketch in the opening paragraphs of a paper—for that matter, many articles in English studies journals begin this way. And of course the range of what counts as an object of study in any of these disciplines today is very wide, and none of them treats texts uncritically as thematically unified structures. When scholars in English programs do study a text in a traditional literary genre, they usually bring it into conversation with texts in other genres, with historical and material contexts, and often with one or more theoretical apparatuses. Few of these aspects of what it means to conduct intellectual inquiry in the disciplines find their way into the Friends Seminary approach to teaching writing.

In fact, the disciplinary practices that are reflected in the Friends approach tend to make it look a lot like the New Criticism with its discredited commitments to the unity and autonomy of texts. While I would not endorse these commitments in academic work, I’m not sure the version of them that structures the Friends approach necessarily implies something backward in the program. The Friends approach is the result of a series of choices that instructors–trained academics, a number of whom have published in their field–made to model the practices of the discipline for a high-school classroom while preserving some of what they considered the most vital affordances of those practices, among them the possibility for discovery that comes with the delay of closure. Their choices aren’t in any way necessary. Other choices might highlight other affordances of the discipline. But their choices do reflect some aspects of the way actual practitioners use writing to support their intellectual work. Their choices also reflect a serious consideration of the less glamorous, but no less vital, need to adapt those practices to form a usable pedagogical model.



Process, Affect, and Writing

In the spirit of some of the preceding posts, I want to dwell for a moment longer on the ideas of process and affect in relation to writing. Like some of my colleagues, I too have long envisioned writing as being fundamentally about the product. I have come to think of writing as the text, the document, the finished work. There is process, of course, for texts result from arrangement, selection, and compilation. The document is a sedimentation of prior work and work is an activity in addition to the thing produced. But on the whole, I have learned to see the process—the working—as valuable for its outcome, not for its own transient existence. This orientation has had negative implications for both the emotional experience of writing and the quality of the texts I produce.

As others have mentioned, I too have found that an orientation towards outcome infuses the writing process with anxiety. But anxiety was not always the most salient affective experience of writing. Before beginning grad school, I was one of those students who generally enjoyed writing. I approached writing assignments as opportunities to think through something, to grapple with some idea. Sitting down to write felt like an act of discovery, accompanied by curiosity and care. This lucky orientation to writing was undoubtedly the result of many factors, among which may have been that my primary schools, where I learned to write, didn’t give grades and focused heavily on the work of revision. Regardless, something has changed. Now, the idea of having to write brings with it crippling anxiety, even when the stakes are practically non-existent. I fret endlessly. I write in fits and starts. I delete and rewrite. Ultimately, I miss deadlines, view the final products as failures, and do what I can to distance myself from what I have created. The reasons for this shift are manifold, but a crucial element has been my gradual instrumentalization of writing. If I once approached the act of writing as an opportunity to explore, I now see it as a means for an end, as an activity valuable largely for what is produced.

My personal reorientation towards writing is almost certainly connected to a broader political economy of value. If I now instrumentalize what I once enjoyed for its own sake, it is because, as someone who must now write “professionally,” I am dependent upon collective allocations of value. And collectively, we have come to privilege those texts which circulate. We justify this privileging with niceties about writing being a way to communicate, to share something of ourselves with others, to participate in the public square of our common humanity, to transgress the limitations of temporal and geographic distances. But in practice, I suspect much of this privileging has a simpler explanation, for it is only through their circulation that texts have been able accumulate the kind of value from which profits can be made and livelihoods maintained. In this sense, our view of writing is ineluctably capitalist. The lexicon of “productivity” has seeped into my consciousness like a mold. And in the subtle way that words, symbolic though they may be, impose themselves upon us, this attachment to productivity has spread and grown deep roots in me. More than I would care to admit, I evaluate my days on the basis of how productive I have been, and in doing so, I minimize the importance of other sources of value, like curiosity, care, joy, or presence—values that somehow feel more intuitively worthwhile. In short, our relationship to writing is entangled with our relations of production.

This instrumentalizing of writing—the skewed allocation of value placed on product—has implications that are both affective and material. It is paradoxical, but for me and for many of my students, the valuation of the product often impinges on the conditions of production, creating a kind of negative feedback loop. When the value of writing is seen as residing in its future product, the activity of writing becomes a process of justification. The words on the page cannot be mere opportunities for exploration; they must ward off the judgement of the future, whether that judgement comes in the form of a grade, a publication, or a paycheck. This is anxiety-inducing, insofar as anxiety is a kind of inability to be present. Held down by the weight of the past and eclipsed by the shadow of the future, the act of writing can be a claustrophobic experience. When we over-value the product and under-value the process, we eliminate the jouissance of the immediate experience of writing. The present is poisoned by the need to justify, and inevitably, to the extent that the writer manages to fight past that claustrophobia, the result is often rather shabby. This post, with its tangents, unfinished thoughts, over-simplifications, and disorderly progression is a prime example.

By obscuring both the activity and affectivity of writing, our product-oriented approach probably leads to an excess of anxiety and sub-par writing, foreclosing opportunities for joy, curiosity, and exploration. What if we inverted our value schema? We could emphasize exploratory or informal writing. We could replace “final” drafts with multiple rough drafts, reflections on the process, or speculative letters about the work that remains to be done. We could reformulate our grading systems to privilege the time spent working instead of the final product submitted, work towards ungrading, or abolish grades entirely. In this light, reclaiming the value of the process, the activity of writing itself, acquires a kind of liberatory glamour. And maybe that glamour is well-deserved, maybe embracing process over product would free many from enormous anxiety, unshackle the labor of writing from the logic of the market, and create spaces for some sort of authentic self-expression and deeper thinking. But I worry that on some level the glamour is more of a thin patina, a shiny coat of novelty that appears different only because it looks unfamiliar on the surface.

Writing, like language, is always a vehicle for power. And under contemporary conditions, where power is so often tied to the flexible metabolism of capital, we should be wary of things that present themselves with the sheen of liberatory gloss. Processes can be commodified just as easily as products. Social media—in turning life itself is into an endless process of drafting, freed from the inherited mandates about what makes writing good, or what counts as writing—has made this abundantly clear. There is, I think, an intuitive elegance to the act of reconsidering. The act of rendering the familiar unfamiliar is a generative one; it creates possibilities for change. There is immense value in being open to being wrong, or in merely being willing to examine what we are doing at some measure of distance. I do think there is merit to carefully reconsidering our approach to writing through a closer examination of the relationships between process and product, between activity and affect. But, unless the context in which we write drastically changes, writing will remain tied to some notion of result. And that is also something to reckon with. At some point, I have to press submit, and in doing so, I will give this text the appearance of a finality it does not possess. It will become a thing produced.

Writing as Revisiting Connections

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.


Writing, Stress and Anxiety

Nobody said dissertating was easy, but I figured it would be easier than this.

Writer’s block is real, and made worse when you expect words to flow seamlessly from your mind to the page. Nothing is so crippling as the expectation of perfection on draft number one. I am writing my dissertation, and have gone through nearly ten revisions on at least three different chapters. I can assure you that they are still nowhere near perfect.

For me at least, empty pages and clunky prose have historically been cause for quick rushes of anxiety. When I started writing my dissertation, I would often find myself either staring nervously into the white void of a blank Word document, or fiddling with a single paragraph (sometimes even, a single sentence) for hours, changing a word here, or a comma there. I was either completely impotent or editing my edits. This routine got me nowhere.

What I soon learned was that despite my lack of progress, I didn’t actually have a “writing” problem. This may sound counter-intuitive. I was falling behind on the schedule that I had laid out for myself and struggled with my writing daily. Of course, I thought, I had a writing problem. I now recognize that I had a “thinking about writing” problem. That is to say, the ideas that I had about what writing was and what it should be, were skewed. I considered writing to be about expressing my ideas, about committing the thoughts in my head to paper.

In fact, the process of writing is often much closer to exploration than it is to the expression of ideas. The difference is of course subtle, and made worse by the alliterative insistence of the previous sentence. But what I mean to say is that writing doesn’t simply communicate a priorithoughts. Rather, writing stimulates, organizes and develops them. As John Bean has argued, “writing is both a process of doing critical thinking and a product that communicates the results of critical thinking” (Bean 2011, 4). Although I fully intend to finish my dissertation and look forward (more than almost anything, to be sure) to the day that I submit a final “product” to my committee, that will come at the end. To get there, and in order to actually move forward, I need to move from thinking about writing to writing to think.

This post is only tangentially about writing as process. My colleagues have already made those connections clear. Instead, this post is about the affective outcomes of writing as process. The connections here are thus between writing, stress and anxiety. When writing is understood as an integral component of thinking, some of that anxiety and stress of expectation starts to melt away. The blank page transforms from a test of knowledge into an opportunity to think, and the stakes are in turn lowered. Now I begin each chapter, each page, with an admission that I don’t yet understand – at least fully – the implications of what I am about to write. But I know that writing will get me there.

I wouldn’t be able to tell you with any more detail than you might receive from a 60 second elevator pitch what my dissertation is about. That’s because despite what I think I might know about my research, it still exists in my head as a rhizomatic web of ideas and connections, rather than as a linear narrative. But traditional dissertations – in their final form, we might hope – are linear expressions of research, products that demonstrate years of work and thought. Worry not. To get to that point, from a web of ideas to a coherent narrative, we will have to first think some more, and then of course, write some more to help us think.


Perceiving Writing As a Process, Not a Product

Supposedly there is a quote by author John Dufresne that goes “the purpose of a first draft is not to get it right, but to get it written”. Unfortunately, as with many historical quotes, I can’t find where or when he said it, but that doesn’t diminish its sensibility. When I came to know this quote, I immediately interpreted it as a type of ‘done is better than perfect’ logic. A (badly) written thesis is still better than the (obviously great) thesis existing solely in my mind, so let’s buckle up, push this draft out, and we can move on to the next writing hurdle. In a sense, it motivated me to produce writing, because a product is better than no product.

I feel that this production perspective on writing was also encouraged by my education. Typically, most courses I took during my bachelor and master’s degree culminated in a term paper where students could demonstrate their mastery of the subject. I say culminated because there wasn’t really a practice built around submitting several drafts. On occasion I was asked to submit an outline first which was supposed to detail the paper’s premise and arguments. This typically resulted in me scrambling a skeleton together, because I didn’t know yet what I was going to write about. Also, which element of the subject one had mastered exactly tended to be open to interpretation, since most term paper assignments were not specific. I recall taking a course one semester that was called International Relations and my term paper discussed Harry Truman dropping the bomb, which seemed to make perfect sense at the time.

Lately, my perspective on writing has changed though and that is due to being a part of the Writing Across the Curriculum fellowship program (WAC) at City Tech. The nice thing about City Tech is that we’re exposed to the WAC pedagogy, mostly via discussing John Bean’s book Engaging Ideas (2011). Bean talks (writes really) a lot about the relationship between writing and critical thinking. The whole premise of the book is that writing is an active learning task, which evokes a high level of critical thinking. Why is it an active learning task? Because writing is simultaneously a process of doing critical thinking and the product that communicates the results of the critical thinking.

This blew my mind. Mainly because I perceived writing as a product alone for years. And, as mentioned above, not just any product but the end product: The written culmination of all my thinking efforts. This view does not acknowledge at all the thinking that goes into the writing. It can essentially be summarized as: Think first, write second. Whereas Bean’s perspective posits: Write first, you’ll think during. Consequently, he takes this philosophy even further: Writing does not only trigger thinking, it strengthens the thinking itself. Though this perspective may be new to me, this feeling is familiar: Being forced to formulate (and justify) my ideas often strengthened the ideas themselves.

So my perspective has shifted from perceiving writing as the end of the thinking, to the process of thinking itself. I think this resonates so much with me because it explains why I had such trouble scrambling a skeleton together in college. At the time I thought I was just a bad student who couldn’t think together an outline, but there were good students out there who could. However, the whole assignment now strikes me as curious. How am I supposed to think together an outline, without any of the writing (thus thinking) having taken place?

Moreover, WAC’s philosophy around critical thinking explains my issues with the lack of focus in term papers. Critical thinking is most evoked by problems (Kurfiss, 1988). Therefore, part of teaching critical thinking is making problems apparent to students. Most term paper assignments I encountered were not problem focused. Most of them didn’t seem to have any focus at all which is how I ended up writing about Truman and the bomb at the end of the International Relations course. I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with that, but I do realize now that unspecific term paper assignments do not evoke critical thinking. Plus, the whole concept behind the term paper seems to foster the perspective of seeing writing as an end product instead of a process.

Therefore, my change in perspective on writing is accompanied with a change in interpretation of Dufresne’s quote. Done is still better than perfect, but the quote no longer encourages writing as a finished product. Instead, it now encourages me to perceive writing as a thinking process. Perhaps I can remind myself best by rephrasing it: “The purpose of a first draft is not to get it right, but to get thinking” (free after supposedly John Dufresne).

Freewriting: Method and Model

For decades now freewriting has been a pivotal technique in writing instruction.  Most students (but not all students, importantly) are exposed to it even before they enter their undergraduate writing classes.  Now that we are all conducting our classes remotely, freewrites have become an even more common practice for engaging with students across academic disciplines. This being the case, in this post I would like to think a bit more deeply about freewriting and why it works.  This seems useful because although freewriting is generally accepted as a worthwhile educational exercise, students (and even teachers) themselves are often not exploring in any depth the underlying assumptions of why freewriting is so pedagogically valuable.  In the era of COVID-19, in which we are radically rethinking what pedagogy itself even is, reconsidering our existing practices (such as freewriting) also seems like a fruitful endeavor.

Freewriting, broadly defined as writing without stopping and editing, was initially advocated as a method by Peter Elbow in his book Writing Without Teachers in 1973. In the simplest terms, freewriting refers to the act of writing quickly for a set time, just putting down whatever is in your mind, without pausing and worrying about what words to use, and without going back to edit what has been written.  As Elbow puts it in his book, “the only requirement is that you never stop” (3).

We might subsequently suggest that there are two interrelated senses by which we can approach freewriting:  as 1) a method and 2) a model.  As outlined above, it is a method for producing writing, but on a theoretical level it is also presenting a model for the way our minds process and produce language.  In other words, freewriting is pedagogically useful because it claims to directly tap into the way our minds ordinarily function.  If our minds auto-generate thought and language even without our willing them to, freewriting, in the manner of a recording device, becomes the attempt to faithfully transcribe these thoughts.  In a nutshell, freewriting is simply the attempt to set a canoe upon the stream of consciousness and chart its path for a time.  As a technique, this is interesting because it tends to go against the grain of usual academic instruction, which precisely tries to get the mind to function in ways it normally wouldn’t (writing a “formal” academic paper being one example of this).

Freewriting, we could say, is built on a model of productivity:  we are relentless producers of thought and language; therefore, we should capitalize on this excess and externalize it in the world (on the page before you).  If this transcribing only produces a bunch of “garbage,” no need to worry!  As Elbow quite emphatically states the matter:  “There is garbage in your head; it if you don’t let it out onto paper, it really will infect everything else up there.  Garbage in your head poisons you.  Garbage on paper can safely be put in the wastepaper basket” (8).  Here Elbow is arguing against accusations of the “infectious” model of writing (in which the production of bad writing only encourages more bad writing), but he is also making an interesting philosophical argument:  our minds are ordinarily chock-full of garbage; therefore, we should attempt, almost in the manner of therapy, to rid ourselves of it so we can focus our attention on those ideas which actually contain value.

Overall, in his defense of freewriting, Elbow argues that freewriting is an organic, developmental process—it is a way to end up thinking something you ordinarily wouldn’t (or couldn’t) have. In other words, the sheer act of freewriting itself begets thinking, which in turn, develops thoughtful writing.  Freewriting in this sense is a recursive process that both begins and ends in the written word.

There is much more that could be said about the theoretical underpinnings of freewriting (and to do so would take us beyond the bounds of this short post), but our brief analysis does seem to indicate that freewriting is useful both in terms of method and model; and in fact, it shows that each of these two factors are dependent on (or at least directly correlated with) the other, a quality that all good forms of pedagogy should strive for.

Recognizing this, I would, lastly, like to share some brief ideas about the actual implementation of freewriting in the classroom.

Although freewriting itself is always unstructured, freewriting as a teaching tool can be both unstructured and structured in terms of implementation.  For example, freewrites can be planned for the beginning of a class (structured) but also, depending on need, peppered throughout a class in intervals in order to spark discussion (unstructured).

While they can also be generative of thought at any point in a class, it is also worthwhile to consider what comes before and after a freewrite.  To use the structured example above, freewriting at the beginning of a class or workshop is useful insofar as it allows participants to generate their own ideas before the instructor even shares their own.  In other words, it allows participants to marshal their own background knowledge and evaluate their preconceptions in terms of the new material being presented.  But what about after?  In the actual classroom setting, we might say the end result of freewriting changes modalities:  it usually becomes the impetus for verbal discussion, rather than a written assignment (although it can also be the latter).  In other words, freewriting not only effectively produces written expression but also oral expression.

In our current remote environment—in which our only view of our students is usually a small black Zoom screen emblazoned with their name—encouraging our students to verbal expression is perhaps most important, not only for them, but also for us as instructors.  As teachers most of us have faced the predicament of deathly silence and blank faces after asking an important question in our classes. Over Zoom, the weight of that silence has become even more onerous:  we no longer even have the comfort of blank faces, we have blank, utterly inexpressive screens.  I have heard repeatedly from colleagues that many instructors, when faced with this total muteness, immediately feel the need to fill the silence with some kind of speech of their own.

This need is understandable; it comes from a long educational tradition in which every moment in a class is supposed to be filled with “curricular content.”  Unfortunately, this is usually counterproductive.  Sometimes students actually just need to have time to quietly process their thoughts.  Increasing your “wait time” (if even by 15-30 seconds) after asking a question is an important strategy to keep in mind, but often a better approach is just to spend a few minutes letting students freewrite in order to give them the time and space to think the question over.

Interestingly enough, the same can be true if there are too many people who are willing to speak.  Teaching remotely, it is very easy—because of lag, or the lack of obvious (spatial) cues such as hand raising—for students to begin speaking at the same time and either talk over one another, or else to realize someone else is speaking and to apologize and stop, recreating the silence all over again.  Just as freewriting can help to transform silence into oral expression, if too many students are trying to speak at the same time, it can often be helpful to have students just spend a few minutes freewriting in silence to allow them to organize their thoughts and express them without worry of interruption.  Conversation can then commence again once the freewriting is complete.

Overall, it is worthwhile to remember the circumvention of the editing process in freewriting is also a circumvention of our traditional pedagogical models, which are largely grounded in a framework of “assessment” or “evaluation.” Having activities that are not solely based on a model of assessment means students are free to bring their own forms of self-assessment to bear.  As we adapt to online teaching, allowing our students time for this kind of conscious self-reflection has become increasingly important.  Across the disciplines, freewriting remains a viable tool for promoting critical thinking and engagement in our classes.


Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers (London: Oxford University Press, 1973).

Note Taking, Active Learning, and the Writing Process

Note taking is a crucial aspect of the writing process, and yet it is a skill that is often under-emphasized in pedagogical practice. Aside from exhortations to “take notes,” it is rare that instructors take time to assist their students in understanding the functions note taking serves or in acquiring concrete strategies for developing their own note taking habits. Generally speaking, note taking serves as a means of both recording information and facilitating reflection. The former is often taken for granted, obscuring the many different approaches that can be taken. The latter is often under-appreciated, and as a consequence, note taking is construed as being prior to the writing process rather than constitutive of it.

There is nothing passive about note taking. Rather, it is an active engagement with the material that has concrete benefits in its own right. Whether listening to a lecture, participating in a discussion, or reading a text, taking notes requires an attentiveness to the situation at hand, thereby unconsciously improving engagement with the material (Piolat, Olive, and Kellogg 2004). Writing notes also produces a “generational effect” (Foos, Mora, and Tkacz 1994). The cognitive tasks of sorting, coding, and arranging new information leads to stronger connections between newly received information and that which has previously been encoded in long-term memory. Note taking also facilitates the construction of more complex analyses, as notes themselves can serve as external storage, enabling students to hold more elements in mind at once than would be possible from rote memory (Cary and Carlson 1999).

These cognitive benefits suggest that a better incorporation of note taking within the writing process, might lead to more developed written analysis. Writing Across the Curriculum pedagogy is grounded in a view of knowledge that is dialogic, a view of learning that is focused on developing the capacity for critical thinking, and an understanding that writing is a fundamental tool in that development. Not taking, I would suggest, is central to the dialogic aspects of knowledge production, since it places students in a position of active engagement with the material. Not all notes are equal, but when implemented as an active learning strategy, note taking can encourage students to think critically about the information they are engaging with.

Taking notes can strengthen the analysis and organization of student writing in at least three ways.

First, many of the challenges students face when writing stem from difficulties with reading, and note taking can strengthen students’ facility with understanding the texts they are being asked to engage with. Reading notes serve as the first opportunity for students to grapple with, unpack, and understand the key concepts that they will need to conduct written analysis. There are several ways to encourage students to develop their note taking skills while reading:

    • Annotations: Incorporate reading annotation into course requirements. This can be done by asking students to make a minimum number of annotations per page, asking students to write out in their own words any sentence or concept that they underline/highlight, and asking for different kinds of annotations. For example, an English professor I worked with at a community college asked students to include one personal reaction, one summarizing annotation, and one question on each page of the reading.
    • Dictionaries: Another way to encourage close reading of texts is to ask students to find definitions for words or key concepts that they do not understand. The act of finding and writing out the definitions encourages students to pause and reflect on difficult aspects of the reading rather than skimming over them.
    • What It Says/What It Does: For each paragraph in a reading, ask students to write a sentence summarizing what is said and a sentence explaining what the purpose the paragraph serves in the context of the whole reading (Bean 2011: 170). This type of assignment encourages students to do the metacognitive work not only of understanding the text, but of understanding how analysis is structured.
    • Outlines: By reconstructing the structure of the reading in the form of an outline, students learn to recognize the hierarchical nature of analytical writing. Asking students to identify the research question, the argument, the literature review, the evidence, and the findings can also familiarize students with practices for organizing their own writing.

Second, note taking can serve as the basis for more formal, written assignments. When students have engaged in note taking that promotes active thinking, they will already have done aspects of the analytical work required of the assignment. There are several ways to encourage students to take notes that prefigure the analytical work they will be expected to do in their formal writing assignments.

    • Thesis statements: Ask students to write, in their own words, the thesis for each of the readings you assign. Doing so encourages students to view readings as arguments in their own right rather than merely as sources of information.
    • Author’s Frame: Ask students to reflect on the author’s reasons for writing, and to consider how the author’s own positionality may be informing the analysis itself, making note of places in the text that provide support for the student’s claims. As with the thesis statement, this kind of note taking/mini-analysis fosters an awareness of the dialogic aspects of knowledge production by situating the reading within an intersubjective context.
    • Before/After: Help students understand that texts are attempting to persuade them of a particular view by asking them to respond to the following questions. “Before I read this text, the author assumed that I believed…; After I read this, the author wanted me to believe…; The author was (not) successful in changing my view because…” (Bean 2011:174).
    • Summaries: Asking students to write brief summaries of the readings, in which they simply restate the essential argument and ideas of a text without quotations, both helps students to internalize the information and can serve as the basis for future analysis.
    • Diagrams: Ask students to find ways of visually representing the arguments of different texts or illustrating how different texts can be situated relative to each other.

Third, many of these note taking strategies can be employed as tools for self-reflection during the process of revising one’s own work. Ask students to take notes on drafts of their own papers using some of the above assignments. Engaging with their own text as a reader can help them to identify areas in need of stronger analysis as well as strengthen the structure and organization of their writing. Similar note-taking tasks can be incorporated into peer-review, to guides students towards providing feedback on higher order issues of analysis, structure, and organization.

In short, treating note taking as a serious analytical task offers a window into some of the ways writing and learning are mutually entangled. Focusing on the activity of taking notes helps to illustrate the linkages between reading, drafting, and revising, and throws into relief the iterative nature of writing. In doing so, we undertake the difficult work of reorienting our expectations away from products and towards process. From a student perspective, note taking offers an opportunity to learn to treat texts as vibrant interlocutors rather than dead documents to be harvested for facts. In this sense, spending time teaching note taking not only helps students develop their reading, writing capacities; it helps empower them as producers of knowledge in their own right.



Bean, John C. 2011. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons Inc.

Cary, Melanie, and Richard A. Carlson. 1999. “External support and the development of problem-solving routines.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 25(4): 1053-1070.

Foos, Paul W., Joseph J. Mora, and Sharon Tkacz. 1994. “Student Study Techniques and the Generation Effect.” Journal of Educational Psychology 86(4): 567-576.

Piolat, Annie, Thierry Olive, and Ronald T. Kellogg. 2005. “Cognitive Effort During Note Taking.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 19(3): 291-312.

There Is a Big Misconception About Writing, Across Disciplines. We Can Fix It.

Perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions across disciplines is that good writing is equivalent to good grammar and mechanics, and a polished final product.

This harmful misconception turns writing into drudgery, as it rests on the assumption that to write well, one must master drab rules about punctuation and sentence structure and have clearly formulated arguments in mind. This type of thinking also limits opportunities for most disciplines to take advantage of writing as a tool for learning, as writing just seems to be most relevant to the English department, where grammarians thrive.

In reality, good grammar is just one very, very small aspect of writing – an aspect that mostly becomes relevant in the final stage of writing, as it helps lessen confusion for the reader when trying to convey ideas. More importantly, in order to convey ideas, one must first have ideas to convey, and writing is actually a tool with which to do that. Writing allows you to grapple with concepts and think through arguments presented by others so that you can arrive at your own. This is the crux of the writing across the curriculum (WAC) perspective: that writing is actually a process of critical thinking.

The Real Purpose of Writing

Somewhere along the way in their educational journey, most students miss the message that writing is a process of critical thinking. If we are to help them understand that writing is a process by which we learn critical thinking skills, we first need to help them understand why critical thinking is so important.

Why is it important anyway?

Because it is the way by which we arrive at knowledge.

John Bean, a professor at Seattle University and the author of Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, suggests that most students arrive at college with a dualistic view of knowledge. They believe that the correct answers are somewhere out there, and they need to find them, then use writing to demonstrate that they have acquired them. In reality, Bean suggests, knowledge is dialogic: It grows out of a dialogue that involves engaging with opposing ideas and alternative perspectives that students can actively participate in and contribute to – through writing.

As defined by Bean, academic writing is writing that begins with a problem or question, is characterized by a problem-focused thesis statement, which is then supported by a hierarchical structure of supporting evidence. The thesis statement can be thought of as a writer’s proposed one-sentence solution to the problem or question that is driving the essay. In this way, writing is equivalent to joining a conversation of people who are “jointly seeking answers to shared questions that puzzle them” (Bean 22). This is how knowledge is dialogic: A thesis leads to a counter-thesis and the evolution of ideas through this presence of opposing or alternative voices is what generates knowledge (Bean 22).

Critical thinking is thus the backbone of knowledge. It is also the backbone of academic writing, as for the most part, this kind of writing requires analytical or argumentative thinking skills. We develop critical thinking by practicing it through writing.

Critical thinking has been defined as “an investigation whose purpose is to explore a situation, phenomenon, question, or problem to arrive at a hypothesis or conclusion about it that integrates all available information and can therefore be convincingly justified” (Kurfiss 2). When writing is perceived as a way to conduct a messy investigation of ideas rather than as a polished report of correct information, it frees students to write messy drafts with an exploratory purpose meant to clarify their own thinking. In essence, students can begin to use writing as a tool for honing critical thinking. Grammar in these early investigations of ideas is just not of primary concern.

How to Dispell the Biggest Writing Misconception

To undo these harmful misconceptions about writing, we need to first explain how knowledge is acquired – that knowledge grows out of an active, dialogic thinking process. We then need to invite students to join in this dialogue, to use multiple, early drafts of writing as a way to attempt to make a tentative argument that presents one of many possible perspectives. We need to explain that writing is not primarily a method by which to transmit a message, but first and foremost, it is a way “to grow and cook” the message (Bean 24). We need to explain that a very normal part of writing is the process of crafting multiple messy drafts with scrambled ideas. In doing this, students will be successfully engaging with a problem their writing focuses on, entering the intellectual struggle of developing and clarifying their own ideas. We need to explain that writing at once challenges one as a thinker and clarifies their thinking, and this is how it really becomes a learning tool for critical thinking.

Seeing writing in this sense turns the concept of writer’s block on its head. Because, really, there is no writer’s block. There is only a hesitation to engage with ideas through writing — a hesitation that arises from harmful misconceptions, including the one about grammar and also the one about writing needing to be polished at every stage.

The mere existence of the concept of writer’s block when it come to classroom assignments, to me, simply suggests that in order to help students become more effective writers, learners, and critical thinkers, we need to examine our own assumptions about writing. Then, we need to change the way we think about, talk about, and teach writing.

Want to discover ways to incorporate meaningful writing in your classroom? Learn more about WAC here.

Works Cited

Bean, John C. Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

Kurfiss, Joanne Gainen. Critical Thinking: Theory, Research, Practice, and Possibilities. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 2, 1988. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports, The George Washington University, One Dupont Circle, Suite 630, Dept. RC, Washington, DC 20036-1183, 1988.