The process of writing a formal, university paper offers students a valuable and complex learning experience. A well-designed writing assignment will allow students to wrestle with the complexities of an issue, to acknowledge and evaluate diverse points of view, and to arrive at a precisely formulated conclusion. Such an assignment encourages the ongoing, thoughtful, skeptical reflection that characterizes the lifelong learner. This learning experience is the result of a complex reflective process, of which the completed paper is only the last stage. To make the writing process an effective learning experience, instructors should be involved in the process and integrate it into the structure of the class. What follows is a brief outline of how such work might be scheduled within the one-month format. Though much of this work can be done by students at home or in the library, you may want to do some of it in class. Such classroom work, often done in small student groups, can enhance the learning process by allowing the instructor to monitor or model the process and by giving students the chance to discuss with one another their approaches to the problem.
Some assumptions about the writing process
The suggestions that follow are based on a few assumptions about the writing process:
Week One: Picking a Topic and Getting Started
Student papers should be begun the first night of class.
Picking a Topic
Week Two: Drafting Ideas
Students should begin drafting-that is, writing down-what they know or think about the topic, so that they can more easily identify the things they don't know and can begin reflecting critically on their own ideas. By Week Two, students should also be immersed in researching the topic: they should be developing a sense of what information is available, what sorts of material will be harder to find, and what different points of view exist on the topic.
Quick Drafts are a good assignment for the first class of the second week, after students have had a chance to do some preliminary research on their topic. Ask students to write down whatever they know (or think they know) about one or more parts of the paper, spending no more than 30-45 minutes. The point of such drafts is to get as many ideas on paper as quickly as possible.
Peer Review of Drafts:
Ask students to bring these drafts to class to share with their peers. Each author can then seek feedback on his/her draft. Suggestions for revision at this stage should focus on content issues:
I recommend discussing no more than three different questions. Student editors should be encouraged to make their comments in the form of suggestions; any suggestions that occur to them, no matter how doubtful, tentative, or far-fetched, should be offered for the author to consider. The authors don't have to take this advice.
After completing a draft of the essay, have students (re)write a single sentence which states the claim the essay is trying to support: e.g., "The most important cause of this problem is…" Because the process of writing a draft usually revises the writer's own understanding of his/her topic, the act of trying to formulate such a sentence often leads authors to a new understanding of their argument. If the author has difficulty stating the thesis, or feels that the paper really doesn't defend that thesis, this may indicate that the draft may need to be rethought or refocused.
By the end of Week Two students should have a draft in progress and a pretty clear idea of what research needs to be done to support their argument.
Week Three: Organization and Revision
By the third week, students should be able to produce a draft which is "roughly" complete: i.e., approximately the proper length and incorporating most of the evidence and arguments the student anticipates using in the final draft. Once a student has produced such a rough draft, more attention can be paid to considerations of audience:
The instructor and/or student editors should focus on these questions in reviewing drafts and making suggestions for their improvement. The following are some useful exercises to try at this point.
Outlining the paper can give the author a sense of its overall structure, revealing gaps, repetitions, and alternative organizational possibilities.
Abstracting is a variation on the outline. Ask students to summarize the main claim of each paragraph in the draft in a single sentence. Put these sentences together to create one or more paragraphs. Thus, a 12 paragraph draft will boil down to a 12 sentence abstract. This exercise can tell the author many useful things about individual paragraphs and about the draft as a whole. If, for instance, a paragraph in the draft doesn't have a single, distinct claim to make, it may be difficult to write a sentence summarizing it. Like an outline, the abstract can also give the author a snapshot of the draft as a whole. It may reveal whether important points are missing, whether other points are repeated, whether the arrangement of points makes clear the logical steps of the argument, and where important transitions occur. Students can write these abstracts in class; the class can then discuss a few examples, review them in groups or simply take them home.
Put students in groups of 3 or 4, and ask them first to read their fellow students' drafts and then to discuss each draft in turn. This discussion should focus on 3 - 4 important features of the essay; you might want to direct the groups to consider issues you feel are important, such as, whether the essay has a clear thesis, whether the research is sufficient, etc. It is also useful to give students the following general guidelines for critiquing one another's work:
To keep students "on task," it often helps to provide them with a list of specific questions to discuss; you may want to have them jot down their thoughts on each draft and show them to you.
By the end of Week Three students should have completed most of their research and have a draft of the whole paper which reflects the likely organization of the final version.
Week Four: Editing
As the deadline nears and it becomes too late to make large-scale changes to the essay, students should begin to fine tune their paragraphs and sentences. Even if students don't know all the rules of grammar, they generally have pretty good ears for sentences that "sound" right or wrong, and can usually detect faulty sentences if they take the time to listen. The following techniques take advantage of this innate good taste.
By the end of Week Four students should be exhausted, proud, and grateful to you for providing them with a superior learning experience.