Writing as Discovery: When Process Defaults to Script

For most people, I imagine, vacations spur thoughts of welcomed relief from day-to-day routines and obligations. But as a writer—one who writes almost daily—I find vacation’s necessary break from routine is almost unbearable.

My ideal existence would include waking early, 5:30 or 6, and then shuffling through my morning ritual online—some things practical and some, quasi-recreational/quasi-professional—while drinking coffee.

And then I would write for several hours.

Just last week, I was on a 6-day cycling trip to Asheville, NC, and did not have any of those options for the first few days. While cycling and touring the breweries of Asheville were wonderful, I grew increasingly anxious about not writing.

Friday, then, we took a break from cycling and ventured that morning to a donut and coffee shop where I did begin a blog post about the trip after taking care of bills and some of the typical online patterns of my normal life.

While I was still meandering into that post, we decided to shift to a local bookstore in town so I stopped mid-blog. As we heading to the bookstore, I talked about what I was blogging and realized it was about political bravery—realizing and saying aloud I should have titled the blog “Brave.”

Once settled in to writing again at the bookstore, I revised the title, and waded back into the blog post with a renewed sense of what I was trying to examine. The piece is typical of my public blogging—a weaving of personal, political, and literary remnants that I quilt together, hoping to produce a cohesive whole.

A better title and a clearer understanding of what my purpose as writer seemed to be, however, still did not fulfill me; I was nearly paralyzed with a sense that I had nowhere to go, no way to bring the post to an end.

I paused my drafting and scrolled through my Twitter feed, discovering an interview with Arundhati Roy. As I read, I recognized that Roy was herself discussing political bravery, what I was investigating in my blog post about visiting Asheville and watching the train wreck of debate about healthcare in the U.S.

Returning to my draft, I weaved in a bit about reduced circumstances from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and then included some key points from Roy’s interview.

I had throughout that morning discovered what I was writing and had also discovered the elements I needed to create something more cohesive than I had when I sat down to write.

I must emphasize that I had none of that before I drafted, what most people would call “writing.”

Stopping and restarting, talking through the post with someone else, and reading had all charged and shifted what that post became.

Of course, I had some initial urge to write, some focus in terms of content, but most of that post is similar to the vast majority of my work as a writer—the thing itself does not come into focus until after the drafting.

So when I came across Ann Curzan’s Why I Don’t Ask Students to Write the Thesis Statement First, I was immediately drawn to her central points:

In the well-intentioned effort to help college writers find strong theses, we as instructors can put the cart before the horse. …

I want students to have that experience of using writing to explore and figure things out, even when they are doing it for a course assignment (i.e., a requirement). The best essays, I believe, start with questions: questions about something we are curious about, a puzzle we can’t seem to figure out yet, a position or a text or an event or a kind of human behavior that we are struggling to understand. I fear that when we ask students to start with a thesis — an argument or a defined position — rather than a question, before they even begin the process of writing, we are setting them up to write less interesting essays. And we don’t set up essays from the very beginning as a chance to explore. When I came to this realization, it changed my pedagogy.

As a writer and teacher of writing, I have had the same discomfort with the writing process as I experience with the five-paragraph essay template—authentic writing guidelines are reduced to harmful practices when a script supersedes the authenticity in the practice.

In English Journal (May 2017), Nicole Boudreau Smith argues for principled practice in writing instruction, what I call warranted practice. Two of her principles are Component #1: Writers Need Process, Not Product and Component #2: Writers Need Strategies, Not Formulas.

Curzan’s piece on the pre-draft thesis and then writing to that thesis helps us investigate how our students of writing need process, but how we also need to be wary of reducing the process to a script.

In other words, for many writers, drafting is brainstorming—yet teachers often portray brainstorming as a step before drafting, just as teachers often require a clear thesis statement before students write.

I come back, then, to be a writer who teaches writing as well as the never-ending pursuit of authentic practice.

I reject completely the template approach to the essay, the five-paragraph form, but I also push against teaching students the writing process instead of helping student experiment with and discover their writing process.

Brainstorming, drafting, conferencing, revising and editing—these are common elements of the writing process, but they are not sequential or linear, and they are not exhaustive; abandoning drafts, reading, taking breaks—these are also aspects of the process that students must be aware of and then allowed to investigate.

More broadly than requiring a thesis and demanding a sequential writing process (which must be documented by the student for the teacher), we as writing teachers need to foster in students writer’s purpose, the urge to write that then intersects with process and form as well as the myriad aspects of creating a coherent text for an audience.

Asking students to identify their text outcome before they draft may be one of the most prohibitive practices in our classrooms. Writing as discovery has the potential to unlock the writer in our students that we often lament not seeing.

When teachers, especially teachers of writing, reach for templates and scripts, I believe that urge comes from a good place, the recognition that students who are novice or developing need structure.

However, I also recognize that templates and scripts tend to do more harm that good; we have ample evidence that students rarely release rigid templates if they have worked for them (in other words, students who made A’s using the five-paragraph essay have been conditioned that the template is effective).

The writing process is incredibly important for students learning to write, and asking them to work from blank paper can be far too daunting.

Instead of reducing the writing process to a script and demanding a definitive thesis from students before they draft, we should offer structure through a broader array of ways to begin a text—questions, problems, provocative passages from other writers, personal stories, an exciting turn of phrase, a title.

To return to Smith’s principled practice (my warranted practice), I suspect that we all must step back from time to time and investigate if our practice matches our goals.

When, how, and if students write with or to a thesis is a set of practices that may be better replaced by seeking ways to help students see writing as discovery.


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