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The writing process

Shitty first drafts! This title immediately grabbed my attention because I get those all the time. However, I’m in agreement with Anne Lamott when she states that, “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts,” a concept both Sondra Perl and Donald Murray would agree with (21).

Within my classroom, I encourage my students to write drafts before turning in their final papers. This process is very beneficial because as Lamott states, “very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it” (23). Often times, students become frustrated and give up before even trying. Often times, students of all ages are reluctant to put words on paper because they do not want to be judged for their deficiencies. As a result, encouraging them to do drafts removes some of the frustration they feel and insecurities many have about their writing. Like Lamott, I remind my students that, “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something-anything-down on paper” (24). Allowing them to do drafts provides a safety net especially if their process is fostered in a no judgment zone. I’m sure many of us would be uncomfortable blogging if we felt our writing was being scrutinize for grammar and spelling rather than content.

Lamott rightly states, “ The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later” (23). These words provide students with a comfort that is needed in order to build their confidence.  As educators, we should teach our students to trust the process of writing, which in essence is teaching them to trust themselves. Lamott speaks of writing as being a diverse process. Each draft is a different development that comes with a varied emotion. However, allowing your-self to freely go through these emotions decrease the anxiety that comes with being a writer. I love the analogy she gives in regards to the process. She states, “the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up…And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth” (24-25). I couldn’t have stated this concept any better.

She goes on to make another comparison, which at first, I didn’t quite get. Lamott writes, “writing is, for some of us, the latch that keeps the door of the pen closed, keeps those crazy ravenous dogs contained” (25).  However, after rereading those lines a couple of times, I connected the metaphor to that of the one she makes about hearing deterring voices as she tries to write. Slowly but surely, the concept of sponsorship popped into my mind. The voices she hears must be that of her sponsors.  This epiphany made me think. I can’t say that I can relate to Lamott’s experience because when I write the only voice I hear is that of my own. But, if some do hear voices then that must mean that the relationship of sponsorship is one that has the potential to be never ending. Is that a good or bad thing?

Donald Murray thinks that educators should, “Teach Writing as a Process Not Product.” Like Stanley Fish, he believes that, “Most of us are TRAINED as English teachers by studying a product: writing” (3). Murray goes onto say, “Naturally we try to use our training. It’s an investment and so we teach writing as a product” (3). As he explains, there is a difference between teaching a product and teaching a process. I agree with this concept and do believe that many teachers are unaware of this realization.  As a result, many educators are still teaching to the product, which is the mandated literature discussed throughout many classrooms.  According to Murray, the process we should teach is that “of discovery through language” (4).

In order to achieve this discovery, the student should focus on word choice because appropriate self-expression comes from finding the right word.  This is a process we as teachers should embrace with our students because selecting words “is an exciting, eventful, evolving process” (4). Language then should be taught in an active and not passive voice.

Murray like Lamott, views writing as a developing process but sees this process as painfully feared. Both agree that the process of writing is never the same in regards to the individual or drafts. However, unlike Lamott, Murray places emphasis on prewriting before drafting. He states, “In prewriting, the writer focuses on that subject, spots an audience, chooses a form which may carry his subject to his audience” (4). He then goes onto describe writing as, “the act of producing a first draft” and rewriting as the, “reconsideration of subject, form, and audience” (4). His detailed outline of the writing process is very similar to that of Lamott’s tooth analogy.

Murray is in favor of a student-centered model where the student without the aid of the educator identifies and discovers his/her own learning, while creating his own literature. I find this concept to be somewhat unrealistic. His model also encloses students from the outside world. Why have schools then, if it is possible to have students create their own learning paths without the facilitating of an educator? However, I do agree that “shutting up” allows the student more freedom to think on his/her own because “When you are talking he isn’t writing” (5). In this situation, the sponsor would have less influence, which at times can be a good thing. Murray is right when he says, “you don’t learn a process by talking about it, but by doing it” (5). I also agree that, “if we do the prewriting for our students they will not learn the largest part of the writing process,” which is that writing is more than putting ink on paper (5). Writing rather, is a process, which is, suppose to lead to a kind of self-discovery, but what of the world’s discovery? Writing has the power to connect people of all ages, race, culture and socio- economical status. Therefore, why would we as educators not want to expose our students to products of literature that are not all their own? Is life only about self -discovery?

Murray’s “writing implications” are a little extreme for my taste and while Lamott’s piece is a little eccentric, I do agree with the common tread, “All writing is experimental” (Murray 6).  As they both stated, the process of writing is just as important as the finished product. However, it’s the finished product that should receive the grade and not the messy process.

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12 Responses

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  1. Travis Lamprecht says

    The finished product is ultimately what the student will be graded and judged on but without the first drafts, the student would get nowhere towards that final draft. While all writing is experimental, it is also meant to be structured, clear and concise for the reader to understand it. Outside of creative writing, if a student’s final essay is unclear and grammatically chaotic, they will receive a poor grade. Perhaps, to ensure that rough drafts are taken seriously, they can be graded as well. A check plus and check minus system would be an effective way to show that the draft is just as important as the finished product.

    • Rachel Duso says

      I once observed a teacher who had students write two to three drafts before handing in the final paper. She collected all drafts to see where students made changes, fixed sentences, made corrections to grammatical errors, and so on. She said she found this to be effective because, although the drafts were not graded, the students knew according to her guidelines for the paper that she was looking for changes and if there were none, their grades reflected that. I thought it was a good way for students to benefit from their drafts and to learn from them.

  2. Johanna Sanchez says

    I also agree with the common tread of the articles that “All writing is experimental”. Writers experiment in their writing through drafts. It gives them a chance to mess up and then correct it to their own taste. I do not know if students in a high school setting are capable of such process. I know all teachers encourage revision but do students really take that into consideration when they sit down to write? I have seen drafts of most students and I do not believe they put an effort into experimenting with their writing unless the teacher goes through the process with them.

  3. Dana Choit says

    I was also a fan of the Shitty First Drafts title, although not because I get them, but because I write them- or at least I always feel like I do even if others disagree. I think Lammott’s description hit the nail on the head, as he tells us of the child’s draft, “where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place…[and] you can shape it later”. The first draft is indeed, where you start and where you get all of your thoughts out. Then it becomes a process of reorganizing, or developing certain points further while perhaps leaving others behind as you realize “what you have done”, or change directions from your original intention all together. I definitely agree with you that “as educators we should teach our students to trust the process of writing…[and ]themselves”. You make a great point when you say that students cannot only give up on their writing (and perhaps on themselves as well) because of frustration, but also because of the fear of judgment and insecurities. I agree with Johanna in that I think it may be a much greater challenge with older, high school students, and that drafts while encouraged, may need to be placed a required parts of the overall assignments. I like Travis’ idea on grading with checks or check minus to keep it simple, and less menacing and judgmental. Another way to incorporate drafts for credit without being too critical could be to utilize them as a part of a larger point system. For example, 5points for draft 1, 5 for draft 2, and 10 points total would be attributed to the final paper grade (highest possible grade of 90 on the last copy). Again, they gain credit for taking part in the process but don’t get too much pressure to be perfect.

  4. mfox2012 says

    Travis, Johanna and Dana, while I don’t agree that drafts should be graded, I do believe that they should be required. Johanna, usually when I tell my high school students that I will not collect their final papers unless there is at least 1 draft produced and attached to the final, I get a lot “whining.” However, with consistency the process eventually becomes second nature, so I do believe that high school students are capable of such a process. Dana, having drafts do affect my students’ overall grade. Most of the time, I go over the drafts with them or I give them a rubric and ask them to peer-edit. During the process of drafting, I am “allowed” to mark their drafts, making as many corrections necessary with them. Therefore, the final papers (product) are scarcely touched other than to put the grade which the students are usually proud of by the end of the process. Travis, I believe that going through the draft process with students emphasizes its importance.

    • Rachel Duso says

      When you do your peer-editing with your students what do you have them look for? I like this idea but am very curious to know how you make it work. I think that’s better than grading the assignment although I’m sure once we become more experienced we can decipher which classes need to have their drafts graded. I really like that you do this because it makes students have to reread their drafts and see where they went wrong or can make their papers better.

    • Christopher Grimm says

      While I believe that the draft process is important, I do see a problem with its economy. As Nancy Sommers notes in next week’s assigned reading, “Responding to Student Writing,” ” an enormous amount of time,” (148) is required for marking student papers. I respect Mishka’s commitment to her students’ writing process, however I wonder about the practicality of such process. Teachers time is already limited; between five classes, extracurricular classes/activities/coaching/etc. to supplement income, graduate courses to ensure permanent certification, and, good heavens, a social life or familial obligations, where does such time originate? When I was student teaching in NYC public schools, I had TWO classes of 34 students; I can imagine the obstacle of keeping up with FIVE classes of 34 students. 170 student papers is a great workload. Adding multiple required drafts seems like a Sisyphus-ian labor.

      This is to say nothing of the student response to writing multiple drafts of a single assignment. Many of us are already have a tenuous grip on our students’ attention and commitment. I wonder about the the required practice of student drafts and our students’ reaction to such methodology.

      Mishka, I respect your commitment. I actually envy your commitment. Sommers writes, “responding to and commenting on student writing consumes the largest proportion of our time”(148); I merely, and respectfully, question the availability of such time. Sommers later writes, “commenting on papers assists the writing course in achieving its purpose; classroom activities and the comments we write to our students need to be connected”(155); I think it should be the goal of the effective teacher, as I have no doubt that many of my classmates are, to strive to connect these efforts, no matter how difficult such time is to allocate.

  5. mobrien says

    I like the connection you make between Lamott’s “voices” and the sponsors we have spent so much time on. I think it brings us right back to the question of sponsorship and its positive/negative influence on a student. If a students has these voices in his head while writing, are they detrimental to his process? I think Lamott is saying, “Yes” to this. So, we have reached another dichotomy in thinking: we want to be positive sponsors and be the voices in the students’ heads that they remember when they need help. However, for someone like Lamott, this sponsorship backfires when students get caught up in what we’ve told them instead of letting loose on the page. Drafts are important, but can be “shitty”? As a grad student, I understand where Lamott is coming from and I tend to agree with her points. But I have experienced hs, undergrad, grad work, and teaching my own students. As a hs student who doesn’t have the foresight or experience yet, I’m not sure I would have been ok with that mixed message. While I agree with Lamott, I also see the faults that Travis points out.

  6. Michael Dettmer says

    Submitting a first draft can create a hesitant situation. Somebody mentioned the idea of polished and unpolished first drafts. The idea of handing in an unpolished first draft can be unnerving to a certain degree. I would never want the teacher to look at a draft that had not been edited or proof read first. This idea of an almost sloppy first draft is hard to accept. There is an embarrassment factor in handing in a sloppy, disorganized first draft. In my own experience, any draft that I would hand in would be polished to a certain extent.

  7. Victoria Fontana says

    As a student who is not used to the process of submitting unedited drafts, there is that element of self-consciousness to consider – here’s is where a student may initially shut down. However, as Mishka wrote, “with consistency the process eventually becomes second nature.” I am a big fan of draft essays and revisions. As Murray points out, “Rewriting is reconsideration… We must listen carefully for those words that might reveal a truth.” Teachers will greatly benefit their students by allowing these opportunities. Once a student trusts the process content can improve and a student will proceed to better manage their writing.

  8. Christopher Grimm says

    P.S. Victoria and Rachel, hey! You ladies were sorely missed Monday afternoon.

  9. Victoria Fontana says

    Thank you, Chris!!! Was sick, but thankfully I’m getting better. See you Monday!