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:
- Writing is a process. It is a process, first of all, of discovery. Writing down your ideas is not just a way of representing your thoughts, but a way of thinking. Revising that draft requires rethinking what one has previously thought. Thus the writing process enacts the critical thinking process.
- Writing, moreover, is a recursive process: the writer is always returning to and repeating earlier steps.
- The more steps there are in the process, the less important any one of them is. Since only the last one counts (i.e., is graded), the writer should be willing to experiment within the process.
- In the real world, writing is almost always a collaborative process. Encourage students to work with one another, with you, and with the Writing Centers at all stages of the process, from generating ideas to editing sentences.
- At the end of the day, the product (usually) gets the grade. While in the earlier stages of the process more attention should be paid to discovering and expressing thoughts and ideas, in the later stages more attention should be paid to the form in which they are presented to the reader. The author should be able to identify the paper's audience and what effect the paper should try to have on that audience.
- Write everything down. Don't do any work "in your head"; do it all on paper.
Week One: Picking a Topic and Getting Started
Student papers should be begun the first night of class.
Picking a Topic
- In order for students to begin thinking deeply and researching their topics, they need to have selected a topic as soon as possible. Students should check topics with the instructor before they begin researching, so that the instructor can weed out topics that are too broad or which present other difficulties students won't have anticipated.
- It is often useful to think of a topic as a question which the student's paper will try to answer. In general, students will write better papers, and engage in the writing process more fully, if they can work on questions in which they have some personal interest. Various invention exercises can be used to prod students to do some initial thinking about the field of study, in order to identify likely topics:
- Lists can be quickly made of areas of interest. The more possible topics students can generate, the more likely it is that they will discover one that is both feasible and interesting to them. You may want to suggest general categories and have students spend a couple of minutes coming up with 2-3 ideas in each category. Remind them that they only need to find one good idea.
- Free writing: Also known as "quick writes." Ask students to spend 2-3 minutes writing down anything they know (or think they know) about a topic, without stopping to think. These brief, ungraded, stream-of-consciousness pieces can be a good way of getting students to identify what they already think they know about a subject, and what they'd like to learn more about.
- Tentative thesis: Once a topic has been selected, students should take a stab at formulating a provisional thesis about it: an answer to an interesting question about that topic. Students should be reminded that the thesis is, at this point, tentative: further thinking or research is likely to suggest ways in which the thesis is inadequate or needs revision. But having a provisional thesis in mind allows students to begin thinking about what arguments and evidence will be needed to defend the thesis.
- By the end of Week One, students should have a good idea of what sorts of questions they need to find answers to, which should guide their initial research into the 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:
- What is missing?
- What is unnecessary?
- What evidence is needed to support these claims?
- What are the most important or persuasive arguments, and how could the paper be arranged to highlight these points?
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:
- How can this material be organized most effectively?
- What objections to the argument is an informed reader likely to make to this argument?
- What gaps in logic or evidence need to be filled in?
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:
- Emphasize that students are to suggest improvements in the drafts, not simply point out what they liked or didn't like (this is one way to get students to get beyond their reluctance to criticize others' work)-remind them that the authors are free to ignore their advice and that even the best piece of writing could be done differently;
- Ask them to identify parts of the draft which work well, as well as those which could be improved;
- Tell them to ignore sentence-level problems such as spelling or grammar-these should be attended to at the very end of the process;
- Remind students that one purpose of such mutual editing is to make them better editors of their own papers by giving them practice editing other students' writing;
- Remind them that another purpose of the assignment is to learn how to approach such writing problems by seeing how others have tried to wrestle with them;
- Remind them, finally, that in the "real world" writing is always a collaborative process, that even the best professional writers have editors.
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.
- Anonymous editing:
Collect the essays in their penultimate form, distribute them to other students, and ask those students simply to make a light anonymous mark in the margin next to any sentence or passage they think "sounds" like it could be improved, whether they know how to fix it or not. When the draft is returned, it is the author's responsibility to review these marks and decide whether and how to fix the problems.
- Reading aloud:
It's notoriously hard to hear how your own writing will actually "sound" to a reader reading it for the first time. The trick is to take sentences or short passages out of the context in which you as their author are used to encountering them. One way to do this is simply to read your writing out loud, either by yourself or, ideally, with an audience.
- Reading backwards:
A more radical method is to read the essay backwards: first the last sentence, then the next-to-last, and so forth. This takes each sentence out of the context of your train of thought, making it easier to spot problem sentences.
By the end of Week Four students should be exhausted, proud, and grateful to you for providing them with a superior learning experience.