Expanding the Writing Process: Drafting Edition

To be a scholar is to be a writer—often a writer seeking publication. Part of my career-long journey to teach writing well, or at least always trying to teach writing better, has been to bring the necessarily reduced experience of writing as a student closer to the authentic experiences of writers in situations, for lack of the better phrase, in the real world.

Recently on Twitter, scholars (notably Tressie McMillan Cottom and Jess Calarco) discussed choices scholars/writers make when working through the revise-and-resubmit phase common in almost all submissions for scholarly publication:

Encouraging and facilitating drafting by students has always been a struggle for me. Some students resist drafting at all (I have students who fear sharing drafts with me until they are “perfect” and many students simply do not have the tools to revise and edit in ways that make the process seem valuable), but I also recognize that an authentic writing process and the many ways we draft are often more complicated than we allow in classrooms.

Two problems at the root of working with students and fostering an effective writing process is, first, helping students who have been taught directly and indirectly to write only one draft from prescriptive prompts and rubrics (an unintended but negative consequence of the Advanced Placement programs and assessments in English, for example), and, second, re-teaching students that have come through a highly regimented writing process sequence (pre-writing, drafting, revising, and publishing).

That second problem often shifts most of the writer’s work to the teacher and leaves students mostly being compliant; however, effective writing pedagogy seeks to provide students support while they navigate an authentic writing process that is anchored in making writer’s decisions along the way.

One way I have tried to foster drafting better is to move away from “the” writing process to “a” writing process, one that students explore and create for themselves by considering the many ways that writers navigate moving from a writing idea to a final piece (often published).

Building a writer’s toolbox is incredibly important for students-as-writers because moving from first draft to final draft is about having purpose and strategies. I encourage and build that toolbox by providing feedback that prompts an action, something specific to do to the draft.

But drafting involves many different aspects of a text to be addressed, aspects that are not necessarily of equal weight in terms of creating meaning for the reader.

I have used these categories for years with students: content and organization (highest level to be addressed), diction and style (the next and important level to be addressed), and grammar, mechanics, and usage (the final level that is essentially editing).

Although students often resist the necessity of several drafts for a single essay, I tend to respond to first and second levels more aggressively in early submissions, stressing that we have no reason to edit a piece that isn’t working to begin with, as LaBrant (1946) argues:

[A teacher] may be content if the writing is composed of sentences with correct structure, with periods neatly placed, verbs correctly ended, pronouns in the right case, and all attractively placed on the page. I have heard teachers say that if their pupils do all this, and spell with reasonable correctness, they (the teachers) are content. I am willing to admit that a conventional paper, such as is just described, tempts one to be satisfied; but I am not willing to admit that it represents a worth-while aim. As a teacher of English, I am not willing to teach the polishing and adornment of irresponsible, unimportant writing [emphasis added]….I would place as the first aim of teaching students to write the development of full responsibility for what they say. (p. 123)

Knowing what aspects of a draft to attack first is incredibly important for students, but as the exchange above by scholars shows, students also need to have a range of options for moving from one draft to the next.

Too often, students have been allowed simply to “fix” the areas marked for them by the teacher. This is probably one of the worst unintended consequences of writer’s workshop.

I constantly have to prompt students to work on their drafts from the comments I have offered, but moving through the entire draft, not just where I have commented.

To expand student drafting options, I have shifted a great deal of my feedback from marking drafts to conferencing. In those conferences we focus on what students should do next.

I offer several options: abandonment (starting the essay over and completely abandoning the first submission), revising/editing the draft I have commented on and that we are conferencing about (still the most common next step), or starting a new Word document and rethinking organization, sentence and paragraph formation, and likely significant aspects of the content (adding or changing sources, changing and/or elaborating on examples, reorganizing the development of that content, etc.).

Final drafts are greatly improved, I find, when students are allowed a wide range of drafting options and given ample support for making writer’s decisions based on their goals for the writing project.

In our conference, I typically start by asking students to say aloud what they were trying to accomplish with their essay; then we discuss if and how the submitted draft accomplishes those goals.

After that framing, we address what moves and strategies students should follow next, keeping that next step manageable and not necessarily exhaustive. I usually ask what are two or three next things to do with this draft while also stressing that the full drafting process for the essay may take three or four (or more) drafts to reach a satisfying final version.

Drafting must be purposeful, goal oriented, and grounded in actionable strategies for the student/writer. But drafting should never be reduced to simply following a set sequence or “fixing” what the student initially submitted regardless of the quality of that submission.

As LaBrant adds:

All writing that is worth putting on paper is creative in that it is made by the writer and is his own product… . Again there may be those who will infer that I am advocating no correction, no emphasis on form. The opposite is really true. The reason for clarity, for approved usage, for attractive form, for organization, lies in the fact that these are means to the communication of something important. (p. 126)

For scholars as writers, that “something important” is often about publishing as part of academic and scholarly careers, and while revise and resubmit can be tedious and frustrating, how to move through several drafts has an authentic purpose that is too often missing in traditional classrooms for students as writers.

That said, we as teachers of writing can foster something much closer to authentic than a lockstep writing process and reducing drafting to “fix what the teacher marks.”

One way to teach writing better is to expand the what and how of drafting for our students, in ways that look more like drafting among writers in that so-called real world.