Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Transforming Substance into Significance, Part 5: Authenticity—Writing Process

Many educators answer "The Writing Process!" when asked about how to teach writing. For many years, educators believed that if they just pushed students through five (or six, or seven…) prescribed steps, writing abilities would naturally develop: If we could just get students to brainstorm, and then draft, and then…Unfortunately, the writing process, as it’s typically presented and explained, lacks the content and skill knowledge students need to write well.

Let’s explore two steps in the writing process, brainstorming and revising.
Brainstorming typically involves students thinking about what they might write. Sometimes, if the student is preparing to write expository text, this first step may involve some research. Some teachers will even have students develop graphic organizers in this “prewriting” step. While each of these activities may play a role in writing’s earliest stage, they fail to provide the direction a young writer needs.

Why? One reason: thinking. If a writer’s thinking is disorganized, the writing will be disorganized. "Clear thinking makes for clear writing," claims editor and author Susan Bell (2007, p. 111), and editor Jack Hart (2006) concurs: "Writing is, in one sense, organized thinking" (p. 43). Thinking, organizing concepts into logical structures, is a precursor to good writing.

An authentic instructional program illustrates the relationship between thinking and writing, in part, by how it engages students in writing’s earliest phases. Some questions to consider when reviewing a program include:
  • Does the program emphasize research as a pre-drafting process—even for most works of fiction?
  • Does the program engage students in exploring and discovering connections between concepts.
  • Does the program aid students in the organization of those connections?
  • Does the program encourage the writer to identify a slant for expository writing?
  • Does the student propose central questions prior to drafting expository writing?
Let’s shift attention to a later phase: revising.

Some educators like the term revising, some like editing, and some like proofreading (though each of these really represent different foci). By revising, I’m referring to the process of improving writing at both large (e.g., clarity) and small (e.g., using active verbs) scales. But what should students look for in reviewing a draft? Should they read it backwards to check for spelling and declare it finished if no errors are evident? Should students read the draft aloud to hear how their writing sounds?

Revising requires multiple reviews of a draft because improving writing requires attention to a plethora of elements. Are the verbs active wherever they can be? Are the antecedents clear? Do the sentences contain too many prepositional phrases? Are the modifiers necessary? Does each paragraph have a consistent focus? Does the writing “show” rather than “tell” wherever possible? Revising brings waves of improvement to writing, but to be successful,
young writers need overt direction for revising their writing. Does the writing program emphasize revision? Does it teach students how to revise by having them practice on prepared writing samples? Does it provide tools for students to use in revising their writing?

The Writing Process, while seemingly
well-known in a general sense, contains steps featuring a myriad of supporting skills. Without mastering the supporting skills, students will not be able to use the writing process to produce quality writing. An authentic writing program provides detailed instruction and training in each phase of writing, from structuring thinking before drafting to generating waves of improvement before publishing.

Bell, S. (2007). The artful edit: On the practice of editing yourself. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Hart, J. (2006). A writer’s coach: An editor’s guide to words that work. New York: Pantheon Books.

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