California English Journal
Revisiting the Writing Process
For five weeks we participated enthusiastically and critically in each other's lessons, wrote continuously, and tried to read and discuss most of the assigned articles and excerpts by the leading American and British theorists of the time: Douglas Barnes, Jimmy Britton, Francis Christensen, Paul Diederich, Janet Emig, Ken Macrorie, Josephine Miles, and Jim Moffett. Plus we were always talking and arguing. It was the kind of rich and frustrating time when you know you can't absorb all you want, even though you try to. At the end of the institute we wrote position papers, attempting to make some sense of all we had experienced, read, and learned. And then we went back to try out what we had learned.
Initial Applications What I brought to my classroom in September
1975 were these then-somewhat revolutionary ideas:
That there is no one "writing process" which can be taught lock-step to a class and followed successfully by all students. Instead there are useful kinds of activities-pre-writing, brainstorming, modeling, small group response-which I could design and which would help my students at any stage of their writing to successfully complete their pieces.
That, in particular, I shouldn't just give students assignments and expect them to begin. I had to plan several different pre-writing activities to allow students to either find their own topics or to find ways of connecting to topics I assigned.
That I shouldn't separate writing from reading. That reading and discussing with my students a range of carefully chosen pieces in the same genre as the assigned writing was as crucial to their growth as writers as any comments I might write on their papers.
That I shouldn't be the only reader of my students' writing. That teaching my students to work productively in small writing response groups was an important use of my time because of what my students could learn, both from each other's comments and from the example of each other's writing.
That I shouldn't teach isolated "skills" or "grammar" lessons. Rather I should first discover what my students needed to learn and then embed the lessons between drafts of papers so that they would have a chance to use a new skill immediately and be rewarded.
That I had to be an active writer and reader myself in the classroom, showing drafts of my writing (particularly the early drafts) on transparencies and reading aloud excerpts from what I was currently reading.
What changes have I made in those approaches over time? Few in content but, based particularly on my work with the Puente Project and with UC Berkeley's CLAD credential, many in degree of emphasis. Both these programs focus primarily on needs in urban, multicultural high schools where many of the students are inexperienced writers and readers. Teaching my "revisited" process, I emphasize the following, under the general-and seemingly contradictory--guideline of slowing down involvement in the writing process to speed up eventual development. I now understand much more fully that these basic processes take time and support to be internalized.
Obviously, if students are inexperienced readers and writers when they enter high school, they need to read and write more in order to develop their skills. Yet at first they don't want to do this, and for good reasons. They don't want to read and write because neither activity has brought them pleasure in the past; in fact, these activities have meant some degree of failure. They don't want to read and write because they don't see the people whom they love and respect doing either on a regular basis. They don't want to read and write because they don't see any connection between the topics and texts they're asked to work with and their lives and cultures outside of school. And some don't want to read and write because they're not sure how to and feel stupid asking. Given that daunting school context, the following emphases were necessary adaptations of my first list.
Increasing the amount of response to and discussion of these readings before writing begins: not doing "reading comprehension" activities but engaging directly with the text by reading aloud favorite lines and asking questions of the text before beginning discussion Having several different pieces of writing in the same topic/genre area "in progress" at the same time: taking the immediate load off each piece that is written; having the students experience what drafts are-their essential disposability and changeability; increasing students' choice about which pieces to pursue in further drafts.
Using transparencies or copies of drafts in progress to model revision possibilities: showing the first and final draft of a student paper and asking students in groups to list the kinds of changes the writer made; having students respond to a first draft with questions for the writer only (no criticism).
Demonstrating that there is no "one size fits all "group work procedure. Helping students understand that each particular group task demands particular learning, practice, reflection, re-learning, and evaluation; a group activity for brainstorming ideas for writing demands a different set of instructions, different allowance for timing, different reporting-back procedures from a writing response group working with final drafts.
Letting the students in on the "mystery" of marking/grading: distributing and discussing clear rubrics before students begin a major assignment; as they become more experienced, involving students in constructing rubrics; conducting holistic scoring sessions in the class based on those rubrics (perhaps using anonymous papers from other classes).
Encouraging students to become reflective about their writing and reading processes and habits. Through log or journal entries, quarterly letters to the teacher, or periodic reflective essays, helping students name and track their development over time.
As I finish this reflection on a quarter century's work with students' and my own writing processes, several underlying themes emerge. One is that we can grow in writing ability when we have regular, sustained, and guided practice within a supportive community. Another, that we grow in writing ability when we become conscious of our own composing processes and how they aid or impede our progress. And finally, we grow in writing ability when we can find ideas, situations, problems, feelings, reactions that so intrigue, puzzle or anger us that we are compelled write and are relieved and gratified by what we can produce.
About the Author:
Revision: It Happens to the Best of Us - or -We
will All Row Better if We're in the Same Boat
If the writer of the Declaration of Independence and the author of so many fine novels and works of nonfiction can endure criticism with such aplomb, why can't we?
Most of us would agree that the writing process consists of the following
But how do we get the students to "buy into" the system, particularly when they get to the end of the list, and they need to revise, proofread, and perhaps most important of all, rewrite?
I have not always been successful at keeping my writers on task. By the time many of them get to the vital revision they are exhausted, humiliated or "bored." They want to know why they have to keep writing the same essay. They feel insulted that the instructor demands so many changes. Frequently the "revision" is returned to the teacher with more errors than there were in the paper originally.
I remember that I too hated to revise my papers. I felt persecuted and that I was wasting my time. After all, wasn't I already a good writer? If I had to write more, I wanted to begin with a new topic. I sympathized with my students because when I was a student, I didn't like feeling "belittled" either.
I realized that if I wanted my students to be "strong finishers" and conscientiously complete the writing process, I would have to convince them that I too had to learn the hard way. I certainly was not born a good writer, and I continue to learn more about good writing every day. So I told them about all the trouble I had trying to get my dissertation approved by my committee. It took me three months to write my first draft, but I had to revise my writings for over two years to satisfy my evaluators. I brought in all my rough drafts and revisions, boxes filled with them, and I could see that some students were beginning to identify with me.
However, I had not reached the majority of the class, and it dawned upon me that I needed to seek examples from professional writers to show that even the best of them are called upon to rethink what they write and improve their work.
I knew that a good argument, like a sturdy stool, must stand upon at least three (and possibly four) "legs" or supporting concepts. I began reading the students passages from Martin Eden, a thinly disguised account of Jack London's frustrations with his editors. But I sensed I needed more. I needed actual examples of revised pieces written by some of America's best writers. Luckily, I made the following discoveries:
Thomas Jefferson was a fine writer, although he may not have been exactly a "professional." Daniel J. Boorstin praises him and his colleagues when he states, "The form as well as the content of the Jeffersonian philosophy has had a subtle influence on the American...mind" (8). How many people realize that the final copy of the Declaration of Independence was the product of the most rigorous revision? Sometimes Jefferson's fellow committee members were rather easy on him:
...Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to expunge their former systems of government. The history alter of the present king of Great Britain is a history of unremitting injuries and usurpations, among which appears repeated no solitary fact to contradict the uniform tenor of the rest, but all have in direct object the establishment of an absolute all having tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world for the truth of which we pledge a faith yet unsullied by falsehood.
But at other times his editors were absolutely ruthless:
Jefferson, without rancor, clarified the revisions above: "The parts struck out by Congress shall be distinguished by a black line drawn under them; and those inserted by them shall be placed in the margin or in a concurrent column" (79).
To some, James A. Michener is known as America's best story teller. Most of us who admire him believe that he can write thousands of pages fluently, effortlessly. Before he died, he wanted to explode this myth. In his memoir, The World Is My Home, he shows us that even a practiced writer is subjected to severe editorial scrutiny. He gives us a series of revised pages from his novel Caribbean. I will show how Michener and his editors revised paragraph one of Chapter I over and over:
This is the biography of one of the world's most alluring bodies of water. The Caribbean is a gem among the oceans, a land-locked sea of distinctive character and rare beauty, but to appreciate its unique charm one must keep in mind its definition and its limitations.
The hero of this book is the Caribbean Sea,
The chief character in this narrative is the Caribbean Sea, one of
is a rare gem the
The chief character in this narrative is the Caribbean Sea, one of the world's most alluring bodies of water, a rare gem among the oceans, defined by the islands that form a chain of lovely jewels to the north and east (371-75).
Was James Michener bitter about changing his writing so many times? Not at all. He praises Kate Medina, a Random House senior editor, because she is "a first-rate professional," and he thanks Bert Krantz, "a brilliant copy editor" who worked with him for decades and saved him from "horrendous gaffes" (371).
If the writer of the Declaration of Independence and the author of so many fine novels and works of nonfiction can endure criticism with such aplomb, why can't we?
Change is ubiquitous in our world today. We never stop having to rethink what we are doing. Our students need to see that we too can adjust to change. I had gone through the ranks of English academia and taught this subject in various high schools for over twenty years before I realized that I was using "The Official Style." This type of writing is full of "long windups" and "laundry lists" of nouns, participles and prepositional phrases. Passive verbs abound in this writing, and the reader does not know who is actually doing what. This mode of expression is a euphemistic, noun style. It is bad for communication, bad for business, and is usually twice as long as it should be. Most "official style" documents have a "lard factor" of almost 50 percent, are difficult to comprehend, and take twice as long to write, read, decipher and send on to other readers. If a document is twice as long as it needs to be, it costs twice as much money and time to go through the business cycle.
I discovered how to "cut the lard out" of my writing after teaching
English for over twenty years in the public schools. During my first
year of teaching Business Writing at CSUF, I discovered a film entitled
Revising Business Prose, which advocated eight steps (or "the Paramedic
Method") to sharpen up business communication:
I was not content with another "laundry list," so I applied the Paramedic
Method to the rules themselves. I believe that most students can adequately
revise their writing by employing three rules:
The following sentence is a good example of what the film would call "an
Who wants to pay more for parking? No one! Thus, the college or university
administration shields the party responsible for raising the fees. Notice
the long windup, "It was decided by the committee that..." There are
two passive verbs, and the "actor" in the sentence is hidden in a prepositional
phrase. Here is the first revision:
The "actor" is now in the sentence's "driver's seat," no longer hidden
in a prepositional phrase. The verbs are active, not passive, and the
sentence consists of seven words instead of twelve. The third revision
is even more radical:
This five-word sentence tells us who is doing what. However, does revision
three have the same meaning as the original sentence? No! This is the
point: the first statement hides the decision makers; the third sentence
does not. If the committee did not raise the parking fees and the dean
did, then the five-word sentence should read:
The Paramedic Method helps us see who is actually doing what. If we know who is responsible, we can then follow up appropriately. This is good business sense.
So, what is the lesson of all this? Here it is: If Jack London felt abused by editors, if such "greats" as Thomas Jefferson and James A. Michener could walk humbly before them, and if an English instructor can revolutionize his style so late in his career, the high school student and the undergraduate Business Writing pupil can learn a great deal by revising their papers.
I was surprised that this preponderance of evidence seemed to convince most of my students, both in the high school and at the college level. I saw them revise their papers with vigor and interest. And you would be surprised how few errors remained in their final products.
I have had fun with this new approach to teaching writing. I strongly advocate showing students that we are not out to "victimize" them. Instead, as they go through the laborious process of redoing what they have written, they actually discover that they are in the same boat with such "greats" as Thomas Jefferson, Jack London, James A. Michener, and you, their teacher.
Hodgins, Francis and Kenneth Silverman, eds. Adventures in American Literature. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.
Michener, James A. Caribbean. New York: Random House, 1989.
________________. The World Is My Home, A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1992.
Pittsburgh Press. Foreword. Centennial. By James A. Michener. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1974.
Revising Business Prose. Videocassette. Written by Richard A. Lanham. UCLA Office of Instructional Development, 1983. 40 min.
Sigband, Norman B. and Arthur H. Bell. Communication for Managers. 6th ed. Cincinnati: South-Western Publishing Co., 1994.
About the Author:
The Writing Product: The Process of Working
"We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master." Ernest Hemingway
Good writing is built word by word, sentence by sentence, each comma thunked down as sure as the bent nail it resembles. Here, then, is a more concise approach to the process of writing which I adapted from the principles of sound construction in The Carpenter's Manifesto (Ehrlich and Mannheimer 1990). They outline six stages for any building project, each of which directly relates to any writing assignment:
Here are several strategies you can try to help your students "visualize" the
Error as an Invitation to Improve
Some teachers resist focusing on errors fear that such criticism will diminish students' self-esteem. Some teachers have even been taught not to use the word error, to talk only about what the student did well. Taken to the extreme, however, such "teaching" is no longer a "process" since a process involves stages and changes throughout. When I set out to master tennis as a thirteen-year-old, I played for as many hours as the day was long and got better, but did not get good until my parents hired a coach, a thin, humble man named Dave Harris. Only then did I improve my ability to play and to think, developing what we then referred to as "court sense." This progress was the result of demonstration sessions during which Dave showed me my errors so I could see them. Later on, when subsequent coaches began using video technology to provide immediate feedback, I knew what it meant to work toward mastery. For those who would argue against the idea of mastery, who say "students cannot achieve it and so it sets them up for failure," I would ask them how we achieve esteem and maintain it if not by attaining elusive goals through hard work. When I ripped a winning backhand down the line to win my first tournament, I knew it was the result of hard work and good teaching. Such experiences also taught me that I could learn anything, a lesson that became very important years later when, after nearly failing to graduate from high school, I enrolled in college and eventually became an English teacher.
This excerpt was taken from The English Teacher's Companion: A Complete Guide to Classroom, Curriculum, and the Profession which Heinemann/Boynton/Cook will release in January 1999. You can find out more about the book or about CATENet, which Jim Burke moderates, by visiting his web site at www.englishcompanion.com.
Writing, especially for this column, can be daunting. What do I write about; who do I aim to reach; what, really, is my purpose? Those are questions I ask myself now, but I can remember when writing seemed a magic, one that would give answers.
Before ever going to school, I "wrote" letters to my father, away at sea on wartime duty. Those letters looked to me like my mother's, filled with squiggly lines and carrying a heart's freight of care, but their actual message had to be unreadable, except as emotion. Then, on my first day of school, I was given the key of the alphabet and the specific letters belonging to my name, and though they didn't have the flowing quality of the squiggles, even in their angularity they did actually express words. A whole world opened, and years flew by, while I penciled down ideas to pass to others, or lists to accomplish, or fitful attempts at keeping a diary to remember by.
Somewhere during my college years, while planning to become the English teacher I am today, I came to the horrifying realization that I had no idea of HOW to teach writing, other than just saying "Write out what you1re thinking." Suddenly writing became not just my own tool for accomplishing, but a huge box of tools, of varying sizes and functions, that others needed to master, but which I scarcely understood and had used only intermittently for meeting defined assignments. For I was not a "Writer," just a student, a seeker of the lifetask to which I could commit. Luckily, I became an aide in the Writing Lab at San Diego State and came to realize that writing meant exploring through varying topics, testing organizational strategies against each other, trying out differing beginnings and endings, testing word flavors for compatability with the overall topic recipe, imagining the needs and interests of a potential "audience," and sounding out words internally to reach the ear of that audience -in short, engaging in a process for which no one strategy was "the answer."
That realization and my actual teaching practice, which has literally meant constantly trying out varying approaches while attempting to polish ones that work, has led me from joining my professional organizations (GSDCTE first) to gather ideas and more, through engaging in the Writing Project (SDAWP) to test the practices with fellow teachers, and, throughout, reading...reading...reading of theory and advice, from Hook to Macrorie, from Kirby to Graves, and end to end in many journals. (One of my most recent influences is Ann Lamott, in Bird by Bird, a book I heartily commend, and an author you can hear in person by coming to CATE 1999 in Burbank in February). I've moved individually through using writing as just a practical tool, to structuring lessons to entice students into also engaging in this growth process; from solitary practice, through meeting with other teachers in professional settings, a world in which CATE is my hub.
This autobiographical recollection comes back to where it started. I'm still in a process -initial writing by pen, transcribing and editing on word processor, and transmitting electronically to our wonderful CA English editor, Carol Jago. Writing is still daunting, probably most so when the message is meant to be persuasive, and I would like to persuade you to join me in CATE, both in person and via the electronic net. For me, now, the MAGIC is back. In becoming your new CATE President, I have discovered the electronic world, and the chance to use e-mail and interactive Web sites. The written word again goes out (like the letters to my father), but now answers can come back from everywhere.
Won't you join with me in an active and interactive writing process by responding with stories and suggestions of your own, either via my e-mail -or better yet by joining the open written conversations on CATENet or exploring the organization and issues on our CATEWeb [www.cateweb.org]. Tell us what is concerning you. And get others to join, both the organization -as new members -and in the conversation. If you prefer, leave voicemail (1-800-303-CATE) or FAX. Do let me hear from you.
About a year ago Leif Fearn, education professor at San Diego State, posted a provocative message to CATEnet challenging the status quo of teaching writing as a process. His premise was that after 10 years of writing process instruction, students were writing more but not better. Thoughtful and impassioned responses poured in. Donald Graves wrote, "When writing process is used as a method it is no better than anything else as far as the teaching of writing is concerned. It is only as good as the teacher who actually teaches and shows how writing is done. It is as good as the level of the teacher's own literacy, i.e. where the teacher effectively reads the students' work and knows how to teach in relation to what he or she sees. It takes a lot of hard work and a highly literate environment created by the professional for things to happen."
Other respondents to Dr. Fearn's opening gambit included Regie Routman, Stephen Krashen, Fran Claggett, E.D. Hirsch, Ken Goodman, and Arthur Applebee. Reading my way through these exchanges, I could not help but think that The Writing Process Revisited was a theme whose time had come. I want to thank Leif Fearn for inspiring this issue and also for finding time in his professional life to help review manuscripts. I urge you to write in and add your voice to this discussion. As you will discover from these pages, the matter is hardly settled.