Reading to Write: Part II

Photo from the Vanderbilt Writing Studio. The original caption reads: "Reverse Outlining can be a sticky (note) situation"

Photo from the Vanderbilt Writing Studio. The original caption reads: “Reverse Outlining can be a sticky (note) situation”

A follow-up post on techniques for teaching writing by first teaching critical reading. In particular, I talk about reverse outlining: how to do it, why you might assign it, and some thought on its relationship to developing critical reading skills.

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Reading to Write: Part I

StrathernTech&Kinship0112Teaching adult learners to write well means first teaching them to read well. “Reading to Write” is the first of two posts on how I’ve attempted to get students reading well in order that they might identify what they need to do to write well.


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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. Continue reading

writer’s block

A few weeks ago, I met Joanne Buckley* (author and co-author of a number of books on writing, including Fit to Print), who works at McMaster’s Student Success Centre and Student Accessibility Centre. In no time at all I found myself learning a number of strategies from her about teaching writing. What I’d like to share with you today is her strategy for tackling writer’s block.

When I or my students have writer’s block, I usually recommend lessening the pressure by cutting the project down in size. So, for a conference paper, I’ve started it by imagining it as a series of two-page response papers, and focusing exclusively on one “response paper” at a time. Last week I started my dissertation by imagining that, in fact, I’m not writing a dissertation, but that I’m writing a 10-page conference paper that just happens to be related to my thesis. I don’t know if I can write a dissertation– I’ve never written one before. But I do know I can write a conference paper. So I’m now happily knocking out 1-2 pages a day towards that “conference paper.”

Joanne offered another excellent idea, one that I think would be especially effective for undergrads: Begin your paper by first writing it as a powerpoint presentation. I think this might work as a tutorial assignment: TAs could get students to prepare a powerpoint of their proposed essays, and then ask them to bring them to tutorial to workshop with their peers. In any case, writing an essay first as a powerpoint removes a number of scary-ass hurdles from students’ paths. Students may feel more comfortable using powerpoint; indeed, its interactive feel might get their fingers moving. It also removes the pressure that the complications and length of an essay can produce. Finally, it gets students to create an outline! We all know the blank stares that the phrases “start with an outline” or “give yourself time to revise” produces in the classroom. Asking a student to write a powerpoint of their proposed essay might just show them the benefits of outlining a paper before they begin. How cool is that?

*Joanne Buckley  holds a few positions at Mac: she supervises the writing tutors at the Student Success Centre, and is also a Learning Strategist with the Student Accessibility Centre. Yes, fellow-Mac teachers, this means that there are writing tutors available, by appt, to undergraduates. In fact, there are five of them.  Plus a few academic skills counsellors.  Students can make an appointment on OscarPlus. I should add, too, that Joanne is wonderfully approachable and kind, which makes her a great person to refer students to in her role as a Learning Strategist.