Writing is a Process, Right?

“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” Mary Heaton Vorse

Bash bash. Bash bash bash. Bash.

This is the sound of me bash-bash-bashing students over the head with the vacuous refrain: “Writing is a process.”

I might as well add  “my dears” to the end of that one, because it’s hard not to utter the words “writing is a process” without “my dears,” “sweet children,” or a baleful sighing of “oh, the naivete of youth” hanging unspoken in the air–so sickly-sweet is the condescension this simple phrase can muster.

So, when I think about how to teach a class how to write, I inevitably take a step back and ask, “How can I first teach them that writing is a process?”

“Lunatic, Architect, Carpenter, Judge,” by David Meadow; adapted from Betty Flowers’ model.

The Madman, Architect, Carpenter & Judge

Strategy #1: Turn to others for help. Some people specialize in teaching writing. Share their insights with the class. Yet others are, you know, actual writers. I mean, people pay them for what they write. And with money comes authority. Borrow it! The words of established, well-known authors and artists might carry more cultural capital than you in your loafers at the front of the class ever could.

I recommend turning to Betty Flowers for the explanatory power of her view of writing. She envisions the writing process as a series of roles–madman, architect, carpenter & judge–rather than steps or stages. Share this model with your class; it’s an effective explanatory tool and does well when prefaced with a discussion of how students go about writing a paper.

And you might add to this an attempt at de-mythologizing the work of writers. Writing ain’t always (if ever) about chanelling some sort of artistic genius. Consider Julia Cameron’s thoughts on the likenesses between sex and writing, and I think you’ll agree:

“Being in the mood to write, like being in the mood to make love, is a luxury that isn’t necessary in a long-term relationship. Just as the first caress can lead to a change of heart, the first sentence, however tentative and awkward, can lead to a desire to go just a little further.” –Julia Cameron, from The Right to Write


Strategy #2: Unpack that unwieldy crate called the writing process into lighter, more manageable parts.  Which parts do you consider important to teach? Thesis statements? Of course. But what about citation rules, the art of paraphrasing, the art of quotation integration, brainstorming, outlining, transitions, topic sentences, conclusions, introductions, revisions, research, writing research notes, and critical reading?

Repeat As Needed

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. ” —Octavia E. Butler

Strategy #3: To really grasp that writing is a process involving different types of activities, it’s important to get students writing often and in different modes.  Consider:

  • Weekly Response Assignments. Weekly homework assignments are a good way to get students writing on an consistent basis. To avoid landing yourself in marking h—, mark these one-page assignments on a pass/fail basis. Response assignments can change each week: students might answer a discussion question one week, a Works Cited entry another week, a draft outline the next, and a thesis statement the week after. Response Assignments might also follow no particular order: a thesis statement one week, a concept map the next, criticism of a text the week following and even a tweet or a blog post after that.
  • One-Minute Papers. Give your students a topic or a question, and let them “free-write” for a minute, or a time that you set with the class.
  • Fan Fiction. Joseph Frank, a TA at McMaster, asks his students to write fan fiction when teaching Moby Dick. I hope to cajole him into writing a guest post on the subject in the near future. In the meantime, check out his blog, Verba Americana, where he discusses all things American-Lit, and explores what makes American Literature relevant today, beyond the walls of the University Literature classroom.
  • Metacommentary. If you want an accessible, point-by-point explanation of what “metacommentary” does for the teaching of writing, see Chapter 10 of They Say, I Say. Let it be known that reading this book may cause blood to pour freely from your eyeballs. No, it’s not witchcraft. It’s simply the inevitable result of your nails digging deeper and deeper into your retinas in an attempt to STOP THE BORING. If you would like to avoid this fate, imagine metacommentary as a practice that allows writers to comment on their own writing, in the margins of the text. You might consider giving students specific questions to respond to in their metacommentary exercises, such as: “Do you think your conclusion is effective? Why/why not? Does it display the traits of an effective conclusion that we discussed in class?” Or: “Identify one point in your paper where you intentionally broke or bent a grammatical or stylistic rule. Explain your reasoning behind your linguistic roguery.”

“Did you know that sourdough from San Francisco is leavened partly by a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfrancisensis? It is native to the soil there, and does not do well elsewhere. But any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can’t put in your book can wash the floor, live in the soil, lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better.” —Erin Bow

Why Teach Writing?

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? If students don’t understand why learning to write is important, all of the above becomes a factory line of tasks in the minds of students.  So, a better question: Why learn to write effectively? I think I’ll let Frye field this one:

“Ideas do not exist until they have been incorporated into words.” –Northrop Frye, from an interview titled  The Role of the Humanities.

The thinking behind the strategies that I’ve described above is that they will allow students to discover this fact themselves, or perhaps with your the help of your feedback. With assignments that build from concept maps to outlines to thesis statemetns to papers, they will literally be able to map the progress of their own ideas. Hopefully, they will learn what that learning and articulation are inseparable.

Tell Me More…

What practices are a part of your writing process? Share them here, and consider bringing them into your teaching-writing repertoire.




4 thoughts on “Writing is a Process, Right?

  1. Having just received my very first university level assignment in anthropology, this post is certainly fortuitous. Thank you for reminding me of the writing process. The little girl in my brain stopped running around in a panic and sat down to read LOL

  2. I think that next semester I will be doing weekly responses with alternating themes. Not only will this allow them to practice writing and prove they’ve been doing the readings, but it will also allow me to diagnose some of the major issues with writing (which are on a grammatical level) before they turn in the first real paper.

  3. I like this, from the book How to Write A Lot: “How to Write a Lot views writing as a set of concrete behaviors such as (a) sitting on a chair, bench, stool, ottoman, toilet, or patch of grass and (b) slapping your flippers against the keyboard to generate paragraphs” (7-8). Okay, I liked it a lot better when I first misread “fingers” instead of “flippers,” but, still.

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