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Writing with Purpose

Wayne C. Booth describes his experience with a former graduate student who, after repeatedly failing to write a successfully rhetorical paper, “could not write… until he found… his own proper tone of voice” (Booth, 139). The student’s cogent exposition would not have been created without, what Sondra Perl describes as, the “felt sense,” also known as the “inner voice” or a writer’s “inspiration” (Perl, 366). I find encouragement in this realization. A long time passes before I am able to awaken the writer in me. Several starter points and inspired thoughts eek out, in bits and chunks, until I am able to somehow string them all together into a coherent, effectual composition. Sometimes my writing feels instinctive, other times completely erratic. Although I eventually find a connection between unrelated thoughts and words, the extended time it takes to do so can make writing feel like a daunting effort. When the piece does finally coalesce, it can come as a surprise. Writing can feel like an intuitive experience. I’m not admitting to a mystical, divine writing experience. (That “aha” moment happened for Neal Donald Walsh while writing his Conversations With God trilogy. He admits that God spoke through him and inspired every word in each book. Unfortunately, I’m not one of God’s chosen millionaires.) What I am now thankfully aware of is the driving force behind a good piece of writing. Since my “felt-sense” is not often immediately activated, the writing process is impeded until the spark is set. It is that fire, that inferno of brilliance that can only come from the depth of the soul that yearns to be explored, or possibly a tempestuous experience that one aches to express. Sometimes good writing simply forms from the nausea experienced by an imminent deadline. I’ve been there. The point is successful writing sometimes needs to be driven by emotion; positive or negative feelings that inspire the inner voice. Otherwise, one risks boring the reader to tears.

Booth’s notion of the rhetorical tone of voice and Perl’s idea of “felt sense” fits nicely into Patricia Bizzell’s inner-directed model of the development of language and writing (Bizzell, 481). She says, “If students are unable to have ideas, educators should look to steps 1 and 2, of the conceptual frame-work, and “guide the students until the student’s own thought-forming mechanisms ‘kick on’ and they can make concepts on their own” (Bizzell, 481). Therefore, students would utilize their existing cognitively sophisticated thinking and writing abilities so that they can tackle specific writing issues. It seems that inspired thinking and writing mechanics work conjointly.

Booth makes this realization with his example of the former student who submitted a lacking and trite exposition on the “Family Relations of More’s Utopia” (Booth, 142). Booth asked for a “meaningless paper”, he got a meaningless paper. This helped him realize that  students may give only what they are asked to give (especially since students are instructed and conditioned to follow directions). He says, “A little thought might have shown me how to give the whole assignment some human point, and therefore some educative value” (Booth, 142). Students who find it difficult to tap into creativity and who do not purposefully or intuitively galvanize their writing efforts may need to be guided with a specific intent. Writing with intent can help elicit a writer’s personal experiences and inspire deep and meaningful feelings that could be channelled into their writing. With this intention, an educator can inspire better writers.

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8 Responses

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  1. Travis Lamprecht says

    I agree with you that good writing derives from emotion and circumstance whether it’s positive or negative. At the same time, as writers, it should be our goal to find something passionate to express an idea about no matter how mundane the subject is. As educators, we should yearn to have our students seek that emotion as well. Deadlines and other added pressures don’t hurt but the drive should always come from within. I always try to relate subject matter in literature and film to personal experiences even if the connection is stretched or limited. It’s a better starting point than to start from nothing.

  2. Johanna Sanchez says

    I would like to begin with a line from your post, “The point is successful writing sometimes needs to be driven by emotion; positive or negative feelings that inspire the inner voice.” I absolutely agree with you on this one. As Perl states, “Once a felt sense forms, we match words to it…if we are writing about something that truly interests us, the felt sense deepens. We know that we are writing out of a ‘centered’ place.” (367). I could tell if an author has written from their “felt sense” if their writing has engaged me in some sort of way, and this goes for academia writing as well. For some reason this kind of writing is what has got me through graduate school. The process that I am most comfortable with is the retrospective structuring in writing. This makes me wonder if students in schools need this type of structuring to be motivated to write in school. It appears that our schools, because of newly imposed standards, are focusing on essays similar to the critical lens. This causes student disengagement in class and low performance in writing because they are simply not interest and are at times afraid of sounding incompetent.

  3. Guadalupe Bueno says

    After reading your post in relation to the essays, a word clicked: Motivation. If a student is not motivated to write on a particular subject, that student will only develop a vague and “boring” paper. I am not saying that the teacher should not propose an essay’s topic, but perhaps by offering a choice that student might just have the knowledge to fully tackle the subject and offer a persuasive argument. Isn’t this what Booth explained in the essay, that only when a writer exposes a rhetorical balance and all of it implies, does the reader experience an engagement ?
    I agree with your thought of writing with intent because only then will the student write a meaningful paper in which his experiences would be given credit, and also the teacher would be in its appropriate role of a mentor, a facilitator of that writer’s thoughts.

  4. johnjparente says

    First to Guadalupe;
    ELA teachers in my school (6th – 8th) are seriously discouraged in giving choices. We may set it up so that students (especially those with advanced skills) think they have a choice, but with differentiated assignments, choice is barely existent. For instance, in a persuasive writing unit, the teacher or ELA department come together on the “topics” for the final product and attempt to make rigorous goals and engaging tasks ahead of time. When it is student work time, students are grouped with others of a similar reading level or writing deficiencies for several obvious reasons. Therefore, to your question about Booth and giving a choices is: Yes, it seems correct for every level higher than middle school. I agree that giving choices helps students feel or experience engagement and take Booth’s rhetoric stance. However, we have found in our school that giving 11 – 13 year old students choices teaches only frivolous choosing and wastes precious time blurring focus toward their individualized learning goals.

    The current top buzzwords informing and torturing city school teachers’ methods are “data and rigor.” I would like to add to Victoria’s assertion that, “Booth’s rhetorical tone of voice and Perl’s idea of “felt sense” fit nicely into Bizzell’s inner-directed model.”

    The mission to give our students more rigorous tasks/assignments/projects is a clear result of these scholars’ work. Though it makes most teachers think of difficult work at first glance, the term “more rigorous” can also be interpreted as giving students more meaningful work. That meaningful work gives the students better motivation to; (1) address an audience, (2) research the topic (knowledge,) and (3) find a voice or tone to take (hopefully we guided their choice and their choice means something to them).

  5. mobrien says

    I found myself having the strongest reaction to Booth’s article this week. In fact, I was so excited about it that I forwarded it to my department administrator. I felt Booth addressed so many of the issues that my department is constantly discussing and there were many instances where his examples and analogies fit perfectly with the curriculum in my district. This question of rhetoric is so important to me, especially in the face of the NYS Regents exam and other standards that have been recently implemented (or are coming soon with the changes in NYS…Grrrrr) But I digress. The most common conversation that I have with my collegues pertains to the writer’s voice. It is rare that I come across a student who truly writes from an individual place in his or her mind. The rhtetoric, the tone, the voice that makes a paper so interesting to read is what I crave as an English teacher because it is that voice that can make even the most mundane subject interesting to read. I think that the standards that are put in place for students often get in the way of their style. Instead of a student’s voice on the page, we are often forced to stomach a number of cookie-cutter papers because students are afraid to take a step away from the rubric. Even when I give students a more creative assignment, or a persuasive argument, their first questions are those of grammar, structure, and POINTS. This obsession with the test has driven our instruction to the point that even when we try to give students a break from the standards, they are fearful of engaging in true rhetoric for fear of it being “wrong.” It’s what I struggle with the most when my students are writing. I know we spoke at length about grammar and if students should really focus on the proper grammar and structure. Yes, these standards have their place, but at what cost? Seems like rhetoric, tone, and voice get lost when students are told to constantly search for the “right” compenents in their writing.

  6. Dana Choit says

    Victoria- I couldn’t help but smile when I read “Sometimes good writing simply forms from the nausea experienced by an imminent deadline”. I have definitely been there as well! You intertwine the ultimate message of all three pieces so well and it comes back to your early statement that “The point is successful writing sometimes needs to be driven by emotion; positive or negative feelings that inspire the inner voice”. I think it’s quite interesting that you include the pressure of a deadline within that, as you state it should be something “emotional” to push the writer forward. I think this is something that a lot of us experience and I had not thought of in the terms of the articles. Yet, it still works- for whether it be the pressure of time or an immediate personal connection an emotional force can push a “felt sense” forward.

    Megan- I really liked that you related the notion of “the tester” back to the student, even in situations where creativity is encouraged by the teacher. I can definitely see that students even when directly told of a more open-ended, personal assignment, still desire to know of not just criteria and rubric for grading but a matter of exact points. I think this goes back to Booth’s example of the student who wrote poorly on assignments, but completely engaged Booth in his letter that was just an expression of his thoughts. The inner motivation and meaningful, engaging ideas that come from within (and the “felt sense” that follows) allow the student to write something that is rich, and regardless of grammatical errors that can be smoothed out, the basis of the piece holds heft. Yet, with the notion of a more formal grading policy, or of the audience, the writing may not or will not be as strong and engaging.

  7. mfox2012 says

    How can the drive come from within, if the student cannot relate to the topic he/she is asked to write about? This is a question we as educators need to think about and seek the answer because we encounter this dilemma within the classroom on a daily basis. My students aren’t so much concerned about the rubric but more so about the act of writing itself. Many see writing as a task related to school and not something that can be done for pleasure or entertainment. Therefore, this is a constant battle within my classroom. I do agree that it is easier for students to write about things that they can relate to. However, there are times when they need to possess the skill and ability to write about the mundane. As a result, It is important to teach them that even the mundane can be relatable no matter how small the relation. I often tell my students that they need to keep the audience of their paper in mind because keeping audience in mind will tap into the purpose for writing and hopefully, provide the motivation to complete the assignment.

  8. Christopher Grimm says

    To my peers who speak of writing with emotion: Pathos is very useful in writing effectively, but it is not the only driving force. Sadly, many of our students–and, in fact, many of us, as well–write with great emotional force, but lack the craft and eloquence behind their arguments. In persuasive written discourse, as is also often the case with verbal debate, a logical argument must be present in order to breach any “new ground” within a conversation.

    Megan–This is awesome! I was truly pleased to read this. This is what excellent writing does; it inspires us to action and new ways of thinking. How wonderful that you were able to exercise some “real world” applications for our “Literacy THEORY” class within your education career.

    Mishka–These are very valid questions. Unfortunately, relatable-ness of a piece of writing is very important concept in teaching our students, perhaps the most important factor. How can we teach a student The Great Gatsby is a valid and moving piece of work, when he/she cannot relate to themes of regret, first-love and life choices, when so many of these concepts are foreign. Last year, my freshman class largely did not relate to To Kill A Mockingbird, despite the humanity and compelling emotion within Harper Lee’s work. This saddened me, until I looked back on my own life and literary journey.

    I didn’t fully realize the power and importance of The Great Gatsby and To Kill A Mockingbird, until I was way into my 20’s. In fact, my writing and my voice only began taking shape when I was at Binghamton, as well. Looking at my SAT students, specifically the young males, I realize that I truly wasn’t much better of a writer than they are at their age! I admit this to my fellow English/English education graduate students: I only received an 82 on my English Regents, back in 1995. Now, I am organizing a MA thesis and seriously considering doctoral work. Sometimes teachers plant seeds so deeply within the young minds of their students , it can be difficult to predict when the fruit will germinate. Alas, this is the problem with standardized testing, but I believe that is a discussion for another week.