News from the Writing Front: Some Thoughts on Process

Hemingway on Writing

I shared this image and quote from Hemingway at a session I chaired at NCTE in November, and between now and then I’ve done a lot of blood-letting as I’ve plugged away at my book. I’ve also experienced jolts of joy, because as Neil Gaiman writes, “The process of writing can be magical.” From nothing but words you can create whole worlds that can move and affect other people. I also learned a thing or two about myself as a writer that have raised some questions about how we teach writing in classrooms, which I’m feeling an itch to share, along with a handful of great writing quotes that could use a good home.

The big thing I learned (or had to re-learn) is to trust my process. I’m not a fast writer in any way. In fact, the whole idea of writing a flash draft is about as unappealing to me as speed dating or dining at Burger King. That’s not to say that I never do it. I can, if I absolutely have to. And I do try to keep my pen or keyboard fingers moving if I’m writing something exploratory, which I do if I’m stuck or want to play around with an idea or image in my notebook or a new document. But that’s writing for me, not writing for a reader. The minute I’m intentionally writing for a reader (versus an assessment or test scorer), I slow down in order to, as Rachel Carson says, “be still and listen to what [my] subject has to tell [me].” And I’m aware that flies right in the face of both many writers’ advice and current classroom trends.

Shitty First DraftsMany writers, for instance, say it’s important to just get a draft down on paper because, as Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird “you need to start  somewhere,” and giving yourself permission to write what she calls a”shitty first draft,” can help. Likewise, John Steinbeck advised would-be writers to “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on.”

Advice like this is part of what drives the flash draft trend in schools, but there’s another writing camp of thought that doesn’t get as much press, which does things differently. Here, for instance, is Annie Dillard making a case for writing carefully and slowly right from the start:

“The reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses—to secure each sentence before building on it—is that original writing fashions a form. It unrolls out into nothingness. It grows cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a root, may begin a strand of metaphor or even out of which much, or all, will develop.”

This camp believes in letting the words guide you, which for writer Jayne Anne Phillips means that she writes “line by line, by the sound and the weight and the music of the words,” without too much revision.

Of course, for better or worse, I revise a lot, too (which is why this book is taking so long). But while much of my revising has to do with clarifying my focus and meaning, which inevitably involves moving parts around, I also follow Tom Romano‘s advice for revision from his fabulous essay “How to Write”:

 “Read aloud. Feel the words in your mouth. Listen. Your sense of how language should sound is a great ally. You’ll hear when words make music; you’ll hear when they’re discordant. Make adjustments if you need to . . . honing language, tinkering and tuning.”

I just do that in my first draft, too.

So why do we teach students that writers always write their first drafts quickly when actually that’s not true? It may have to do with the fact that some students can feel inhibited or downright scared at the sight of a blank page or screen, and in that they’re not alone. Writer Margaret Atwood, for instance, has said, “The fact is that blank pages inspire me with terror. What will I put on them? Will it be good enough?” And writing a flash or a shitty first draft can be a way of tricking our minds into leaving those fears behind. It’s also easier to teach kids to write flash drafts than it is to invite, if not teach, them to love language. But as often happens when we take an easy route, we run the risk of simplifying something complex—and, in the case of writing, really hard.

Don't Try to ThinkI also suspect we ask students to write flash drafts as a way of preparing them for on-demand assessments, though the two are different. When it comes to high-stakes performing, for instance, science writer Elizabeth Svoboda, author of “How to Avoid Choking under Pressure,” writes that “If you are well-practiced, just let the learning you have done unfold under the force of unconscious rather than conscious thinking.” That is, you’re not supposed to think. But what if all that you’re well-practiced in is writing on-demand? What learning is unfolding then?

I’m not suggesting that everyone follow my process, only that process is as important as products—though in our current product-driven age, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s during the process, after all, that we get to practice and try out things as writers, whether that’s leads, structure, craft moves or even a process itself. We could, for instance, give students more than one strategy for getting words down on the page and then invite them to consider which worked best for for them, using this advice from Tom Romano as a guide.”Whatever helps you come to language, tap, exploit, ride. Whatever hinders you coming to language, avoid, shun, spurn.”

Of course, this means we’d need to value engaging with language as much as getting a job done. But I believe there are students out there who might actually find more joy in the blood-letting by listening to and following their words. And by finding more joy in the process, they’d learn more, which means that they’d come to those high-stakes moments with more that could unconsciously unfold.


22 thoughts on “News from the Writing Front: Some Thoughts on Process

  1. Hey Vicki!!
    GREAT post!! I find it interesting that quick writes (I assume) have morphed into flash drafts. This idea of a draft almost seems more intimidating to me as it seems to suggest some kind of final product at the end, even if it is just a draft.
    I am a fan of the quick write as it often does engage me in a way that allows me the freedom to just put anything DOWN!! I also use this quick writes with my teachers and kids because of the limited time we have together and with practice I am often amazed at what they write in those 7 minutes or so. Where did flash draft come from? I feel a bit out of the loop if this is the new norm and hear your points about the need for speed.
    I have been in a major writing drought…at least in terms of getting anything down that I want to put out in this world!! Working on several projects, but they are all in “process”. Missing my blogging life and thinking this post has inspired me to go back at the numerous blog drafts I have written and to sit with them patiently for a while and see if I can do some bleeding and sculpting and get back into my blogging groove!!
    It is a groove for me and what you have done here is what I hope and wish we could do with every writer and that is to have them identify and articulate their own process and to realize it is a different animal for everyone. I do trust the process and even in times like these when anything I put on the page does not groove the way I want it to I must just keep on writing…fast or slow just gotta keep getting words down on the page!.
    Thanks Vicki!!

    • Hello Tomasen! So good to hear your voice! To be honest I don’t know the origins of flash drafts, but it crops up in the TC Units of Study and seems to replace the kind of writing I, for one, used to ask kids to do in a notebook before they sat down to draft—or what Katherine Bomer in Writing a Life calls layering: spending time with whatever you’re writing about to begin to see possibilities. But, funny, how I find blogging to be an escape from other kinds of projects (like book writing) that seem harder for me to do. Blogs feel more forgiving to me, and if that idea makes you want to blog, I, for one, would be really, really happy, as I’ve missed your voice. And nudge, nudge, hint, hint, I think a blog post on the power of quick writes would be great and really important for teachers who didn’t come of age at the same time we did and might not even know of the concept. Just thinkin’ . . .

  2. What a lovely and timely post, Vicki. I continue to struggle with this certain dilemma as well: I believe most in the importance of process in life. But the pressure from the wider world for product and performance can be stifling. I say that all I want for my pre-K son is to choose kind responses to others and be a curious, engaged learner, but I fight back worry over the fact that he always skips 13 when he counts! I want my students to know what it means to be a writer – that it’s complex and messy and what they say to readers can change the world – and yet I still cringe sharing student work with colleagues containing comma splices and broken MLA rules. Ha. Thank you for reminding me about process, for sharing your journey as a writer, and for encouraging us with your honesty and hope.

    • Oh, Emily, this made me so grateful that my daughter (who’s now 24) went to pre-K and kindergarten before it became so academic. I can’t imagine how she—or I—would handle the pressure to know her numbers and letters and actually read before her brain was ready. All this pressure suggests such a fear that we’re all inadequate. Even professional writers, after all, rely on an editor to deal with things like comma splices. And if you’re looking for more affirmation and inspiration, here’s a link to Vicki Spandel’s preface to The 9 Rights of Every Writer, which I think should be required reading for all those focused only on MLA rules:

  3. I love this! This post is such a great reminder that there is no such thing as “THE” writing process, but there are many different processes that writers go through to accomplish their varied goals.

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. Just realized that by saying and prescribing “THE” writing process we risk turning it into a formula. Maybe better and more truthful would be to say that most writers go through these stage but they don’t always do them in order, nor spend equal time on them. And just as we might invite students to try out various ways to craft a lead or ending, maybe we need to do the same with the whole process itself so that the writer can try on different approaches and find one (or more) that feel right.

  4. So Vicki, how do you deal with the contractual pressure of getting a manuscript done by a particular date? The date looming over me is causing great anxiety and actually preventing me from writing!

    • I so feel your pain, Renee as I’m nudging up to a deadline that has already been extended once that I’m not sure I’m going to make. Colleagues and friends have assured me that this happens all the time—and Heinemann has been tremendously supportive. So talk to Zoe (who I think you might be working with). It may simply be a matter of the release date—as in, not meeting the deadline doesn’t always mean not publishing the book; it just means it won’t come out when you’d thought. But there are sometimes other issues involved. So in addition to talking with Zoe, see if you can find some ways to trick your mind into leaving that anxiety behind and give yourself some permission to play—and forgive yourself when a day doesn’t go well, which happens to absolutely everyone.

  5. I love this post, it’s a great snapshot of where my 1st graders are at as they embrace the concept of drafts and improving their writing as they re-write. I’d share the Anne Lamott quote with them if it was a bit more sanitized 🙂

    • Wish I could come up with a nifty but sanitized way of saying ‘shitty first draft’! But as I was writing this I did find myself wondering if we project anxiety on students (especially little ones), which they might not actually feel. As in, do kids have the same fear of the blank page as many of us do? And if so, why – especially in first grade. Is there a way of making it playful—knowing that Einstein said that “Play was the highest form of research.” I also think little ones can get better as they write more pieces, rather than perfecting one, which seems in keeping with that old Writing Workshop mantra to “teach the writer, not the writing.” But I say do whatever is needed to help them find the joy in writing.

  6. This discussion about process versus product is huge. I love your point about the fear of reducing the art of writing into a flash draft. Like you, my process is slow and thoughtful. I do obsess word by word. On one hand, I can understand the need for assisting our students in getting over the fear of writing by offering them the opportunity to flash draft, but on the other, I am dually concerned on the message we may be sending, and I worry that we are not spending enough time developing the craft of writing. I am new at blogging, but recently wrote about the same topic; I’d love to hear your thoughts. Here is the link to my site:

    • I’m afraid it’s taken me awhile to get to this, Laurie, but I LOVED your post—from the Project Runway connection to Don Graves and Matisse. And you’re so right on about students not having enough time to revise and study craft, as I think what you can do one day when you revise you can do when you draft down the line. That’s how you get better. You, on the other hand, seem like a natural-born blogger. You just need to add a way for me to subscribe and I’m in.

  7. Great reflections on writing here, Vicki.
    I used the same quote in a post about blogging … Your discussion of writing as an unfolding is resonant. Writers need to trust the process, the struggles, the to-ing, fro-ing, ebbs and flows which leads to breakdowns and breakthroughs. Sometimes the biggest challenges produce the most rewarding products (as I am discovering with my PhD)!

    • Love your blog’s name, Deborah! I never even realized that a female flaneur was a flaneuse! And yes, trust is so importance and so seemingly lacking these days. And it we’re talking about grit, what better way to develop it then to help kids go through the all the to-ing and fro-ing that, for me anyway, always comes with writing.

  8. Vicki,
    Such a timely post as we’ve had this discussion lately that includes, “How many final published pieces of writing should a student have?”

    I’m leaning towards the answer from the “cheap seats” – “It depends!”

    I think there is a definite need for balance when we think of confident, competent writers. Writers themselves need to be aware of their metacognition and how writing plays out for them. Environment? Quiet or Noisy? Handwrite or Keyboard? Think or Draft? But more importantly are the issues about WHAT to do when stuck . . . keep writing, go for a walk, try a different approach.

    Writing is so complicated. Good writing even more so. It really is not as simple as just putting words on paper! 🙂

    • So glad that between your comment and my response, we got to do brunch! Not only was it wonderful to see you but taking a break for brunch unstuck me! There are places, like the Opal School, that acknowledge that writers often need to walk away and do something else, knowing that a part of their minds is still mulling and trying to figure things out. But not quite sure I’ve seen that built into writing workshop in a public school. Maybe Iowa can be one of the first . . . ?

      • We can do that! TP: Sometimes when a teacher is stuck on their writing, they need to try another way. One way to do this is to walk away and provide think time!

        Thank you so much for being so generous with your time! It was so good to “see” and talk with you! ❤

    • Fran, I agree that there are meta layers of writing on which writers can reflect. I have had some thoughts about environment – spaces for writing are important for me:
      For me the best thinking seems to happen in the in-between times as I mentioned here –
      Totally agree that good writing is a complex mistress! 🙂

  9. Pingback: Links I Loved Last Week: A Round-Up of Online Reading 4/12/15 | the dirigible plum

  10. You bring up so many good points here that make me rethink how we approach the teaching of writing.

    When “flash drafts” are used as a part of the writing process and the audience is authentic, students have been more inclined to see this a first step in their work. While not perfect, this has gotten more to reach for better work.

    The trouble comes when students have to shift from the process driven to the high stakes in the moment on-demand work with no chance to revise. As with all testing work, on demands are a special kind of writing skill set. As Fran said, we need to find balance and understanding. In the end, I so hope that the on demand type of writing doesn’t eclipse the authentic writing that requires time and “SFD!”

    As always, thank you so much for making me think through what I’m doing!

    • P.S. As I was writing back to Fran, I realized that after some fiddling, her blog’s showing up in my inbox, but I’m still not getting yours. Can you sign me up? I miss your words!

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