Adapting Elizabeth May’s “Trash Drafting” for Students-as-Writers

Science fiction and fantasy author Elizabeth May recently offered a really excellent Twitter thread about “trash drafting.”

As a writer and teacher of writing, I was particularly drawn to the final Tweet in the thread:

This emphasis on the proper place of editing in the writing process (attending to surface features later rather than earlier) reminded me of a dictum from Lou LaBrant (1946) that drives much of how I teach writing: “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).

While I recognize that it is impossible to separate cleanly meaning from expression and conventions, writers and students-as-writers need to focus the greatest weight of their attention on making meaning as they discover through drafting what they want and need to express.

In fact, many students struggle with the blank page under the paralysis of the tyranny of correctness and perfection. Relieved of being perfect or correct while drafting—creating and developing a yet unknown meaning—is crucial for students learning to write well.

And thus, as I have thought further about May’s Tweets, I am now even more drawn to “trash drafting” in that this metaphor highlights an option often ignored by students—the right (and even need) to abandon (trash) a draft of an essay.

Abandonment in writing and reading is rarely allowed and almost never encouraged; I think this is true because of an odd economy of student work linked to grading. Teachers and their students feel an irrational need to account for all artifacts produced by students, disregarding that final products are likely where the focus should be.

Trash drafting acknowledges some key and often missing concepts essential for effective writing instruction.

First, drafts of writing are valuable as a process toward a public draft (for students, toward a draft to be submitted for feedback and/or evaluation), but exact elements of those drafts need not be in that final version intact, or verbatim.

Trash drafting, I think, is an effective metaphor that better captures the hardest aspects of discovery drafting (specifically for students, abandonment).

Process portfolios, however, can provide structures that allow students to display the trash drafts without those drafts bearing the weight of assessment/evaluation; students can receive blanket credit for drafting (a check, etc.) without fear of points being deducted, without the pressure of correctness/perfection.

Another key element of May’s thread is that she has control of the trash drafts in terms of what she eventually submits for feedback. Students are rarely afforded this level of control, purpose, and autonomy.

Trash drafting places the responsibility for drafting on the student (when the draft is seen by someone else) and not the teacher, helping shift the role of the student toward being a writer.

For example, one of the most harmful traditional approaches to the writing process in formal schooling is requiring students to submit a draft introduction and thesis before they are allowed to draft the essay. This structure ignores the value of trash/discovery drafting, and it creates yet another tyranny for the student—the need to write the essay approved even if during the drafting the student realizes a better and different essay.

As a first-year writing professor, I always start essay conferences by asking if this is the essay the student wants to revise; if it is not, we abandon, and brainstorm a replacement essay.

Since May is a professional writer and novelist, I have been thinking about how trash drafting looks in the formal class setting where students are more often than not writing nonfiction essays.

As one option for drafting and brainstorming I suggest allowing or encouraging struggling writers to produce a trash draft that is an essay about the essay the student is considering.

For example, starting as rudimentary as “In this essay, I want to …”. As well the teacher should suggest that the student include some musing about ways to open the essay, examples or evidence to include, and how to end the essay.

This approach has no pressure for grading, correctness, and it allows the students a space and process for writing to a place where the student can draft the actual essay.

It is important for teachers of writing to recognize and value that the act of writing is the act of thinking. Trash/discovery drafts may not produce the text of an essay, but they are likely to crystalize the thinking a student needs in order to write well.

Again, as LaBrant argues:

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)

LaBrant, L. (1946). Teaching high-school students to writeEnglish Journal, 35(3), 123–128. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/806777

Many will view May as a “creative writer” and ignore, see LaBrant above, that all writing is creative—and thus idiosyncratic in how it comes to be.

Embracing May’s trash drafting and reinforcing a healthier approach to correctness and perfection are likely to improve both how we teach writing and the writing our students choose eventually to submit for our feedback.