Writing as an iterative process: finding the value in drafting and revising

Image from monash.edu.au

Image from monash.edu.au

In the Writing Centre we talk a lot about writing being a process, and we try very hard to teach students through as many tutorials as they will come to, that indeed they will learn to become more confident, capable and skilled writers as they work on their writing, practice, get feedback and learn from their errors and missteps as well as from what they do well. This focus on writing as a process is central to the work that many Writing Centres and academic literacy specialists do around the world and in South Africa. Learning is not a linear process, so why would we imagine that writing about what we are learning would be a linear process too? However, when we present our writing, we do present it in a linear form: introduction, development of argument or discussion, and conclusion followed by references, and this can fool undergraduate students into thinking that the research and writing process should be quite simple and straightforward.

Key to this process is drafting, getting feedback and revision. Student-writers have to move through these steps, iteratively rather than linearly, in order to produce a piece of work they would call the final draft and submit for assessment. But this is a difficult process, and also one that many students do not necessarily welcome. I worked on a project in 2010 where we introduced a drafting, feedback and revision process where previously students had had only one chance to write an essay and receive a mark for it. Several of the students did not enjoy the drafting process and one even commented that it made her feel ‘stupid’ because she felt she should be able to get it right the first time, and upset that the essay was not finished yet. I have often wondered where this notion of getting writing right the first time came from. Did she bring it with her from school? I don’t remember drafting essays at school, and I rarely did so as an undergraduate. If I did, I made my own revisions, often in a very hit and miss manner because I did not often get useful feedback, and did not really understand how my lecturers wanted me to write. So I can empathise with her feeling stupid for not getting it ‘right’ on the first go, and also feeling disheartened when the feedback she got showed her how much work she still had to do. She is certainly not alone in feeling this way. Many academics who send papers to journals and are asked to revise and resubmit,   sometimes by overhauling the whole argument, have felt this way. Yet, we keep going and we keep writing. Why?

We think when we write – before we write, while we write and even after we write. New ideas occur, new connections between ideas become clearer, and sharper and more concise ways of stating our points, supporting them and referring to sources emerge and take shape as we work through the iterative process that is writing. We read and research, think and make notes, write something in the form of a first draft, and hopefully are brave  enough to show someone – a tutor, a friend, a lecturer – who can read critically, offer advice and point our thinking in new directions. Along with our own continued thinking about our work, we use this advice and feedback to reshape what we have written, improving on it and learning more as we do. This is a tough process, and it is time- and energy-consuming. But, it is ultimately also rewarding; there is pleasure in crafting a piece of writing that represents your thinking and that can communicate it skillfully to a reader who enjoys reading it. So this iterative process is one that helps us to grow – in knowledge, ability and also in self-confidence.

I did not appreciate the value of drafting, revising and rethinking my writing until I was a Masters student. I think that some of this had to do with needing to mature emotionally and intellectually. As an undergraduate I did not really see the connections between all the pieces of knowledge I was learning, or how writing about them could help me to do much more than earn the marks I needed to graduate well. Later, as a more mature student, I could appreciate how different each draft was, and I with them. This appreciation for, and even pleasure in, revising and rewriting has served me well as a PhD student, too.

I also think that my coming late to finding value in drafting and revising my own writing had to do with a difference in focus between my undergraduate and postgraduate studies. As an undergraduate the focus was on the thing I produced; the essay or the portfolio or so on. It was not on the process of writing it. I seldom received feedback or was given chances to draft and revise before the final submission. At postgraduate level, even though I had to produce writing that was assessed, the focus in seminars and also in the papers we wrote was far more on the process of thinking, rethinking, debating, challenging and learning as we went, and the writing I did reflected this.

Perhaps this is what is lacking in undergraduate curricula. The focus is more often than not on the the product at the expense of time for the process that is involved in creating a product that shows one’s intellectual ability and also growth. We need to rethink, quite radically, the way we teach and value writing and thinking as iterative rather than linear processes if we are to see the intellectual and also emotional qualities we want in our graduates and postgraduates.

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What does ‘active’ participation look like?

Image from blog.newchurchlive.tv

Image from blog.newchurchlive.tv

I was mulling this question over recently with some of the tutors I work with. We talk a lot in the Writing Centre about getting students to participate ‘actively’ in the writing tutorials, and not sit passively expecting us to give them all the answers to their questions. A great deal of our training focuses on helping tutors to ask the right questions and draw students into the conversation in ways that enable them to talk about their writing ‘actively’. In education in general ‘active participation’ seems to be contrast in a binary way with ‘passive learning’, the latter being undesirable. I am wondering, here, if we need to be questioning more closely what we mean by actively? Do we mean loudly? Forcefully? With conviction and clear ideas? Or do we mean something else, something less – overt?

This is a difficult question to answer, I think, without wandering into tricky territory fraught with binary oppositions, which are rarely very useful to think with, like active vs passive; teaching as transmission vs teaching as collaborative meaning-making… I am sure there are many others I am not able to think of or express very succinctly here. and I am aware that I am probably gliding over lots of theory and research in this topic. But, this question is an important one because active participation in one’s own learning is so valued in higher education in general, and because much of the current constructivist and ‘authentic learning’ emphasis in approaches to curriculum development and teaching and learning relies on students to be active makers of meaning in their own contexts both within and outside of the classroom.

The question I am pondering, in a very un-theoretical way for the time being is: what does an active learner look like, and if we think he or she looks like just one kind of thing, does this lead us to exclude or discount other kinds of learning and students because they don’t look like this? I think perhaps the Writing Centre has a definition of an ‘active’ participant that we need to examine carefully, to ensure that we are not getting frustrated with students who don’t fit this definition, accusing them perhaps of not being very engaged or interested in their own learning, and wanting to be ‘spoonfed’ the answers. I think, further, that many lecturers think of active learning in certain ways – maybe ways that are quite tacit even to them – and that they often get frustrated or even angry when students in their classrooms do things that fall outside of this ideal that seem not to be active or engaged in these ways.

So, what I will be suggesting to my tutors when we reconvene next term is that we deconstruct our collective and individual notions of what an ‘active’ writing tutorial looks like. What if we sit with a student who doesn’t ask lots of questions and offer answers to all of our questions? Is that student less of an active and participatory student than one who has lots of questions and answers about their own writing? Is that student learning less or making less sense of their writing than the one who asks lots of questions? It is difficult to know the answer to this, and I think we have to be careful if we are assuming that students who raise their hands in class and have lots of answers and ideas are more active learners, and therefore getting more learning done than the quieter students who spend their time making notes, thinking and participating in their own learning differently.

Can we take what we think and know about writing as a process and apply it to our understanding of students and their learning; can we see active learning on a continuum, rather than in binary opposition to passivity and wanting to be ‘spoonfed’? I think if we, and if lecturers, could more critically examine some of our taken-for-granted ideas about the ideal students and their ideal behaviour (and we all, to different extents, have these students in mind when we design curricula and learning programmes) we could approach a larger number of students in ways that both meet them where they are and also include them in the newer and less familiar spaces they need to become comfortable in at university. We could have ideas about what active learning could be in terms of a process of growing and becoming more confident, capable and knowledgeable by degrees, and this could enable us to create more inclusive learning and teaching environments that make space for greater numbers of students to feel like they are okay, that they do belong, and that they are part of a process that will help them to grow, learn, change and become the people they hope to be (and we hope they can be too). Idealistic? Perhaps. Necessary and possible? Definitely.

Writing for yourself – writing as a form of thinking

Image from Coming Unmoored (comingunmoored.com)

Image from Coming Unmoored (comingunmoored.com)

This is a very personal post because it is linked to my own writing. I am currently working on my PhD thesis (hereafter ‘the Thesis’) and this issue of writing for myself and writing for others, like my supervisor and examiners, is very much a current affair. Lately I have been quite focused on the former kind of writing: writing for myself, and the value of this kind of writing as a way of thinking through often complex ideas and concepts.

My supervisor has long been telling me that it is really important to find time to write just for myself every day. But I am a part-time student and am working and parenting full-time, so writing just for myself often seems overly indulgent. When I can make time to write I need to Produce Writing that can be Read and Commented On and go into the Thesis. I can’t just scribble. That’s a waste of precious writing time, right? Actually, wrong, as I only very recently worked out for myself.

I found my way to a website called 750words.com, and signed up after being given the link by a colleague. It looked like a fun way to get a bit of writing done, and was similar in intent to the research journal I have been keeping sporadically. So I gave it a try. I wanted to write every day for as many days as I could, and also had the added bonus of being rewarded with point and badges on the site – just for writing! Initially it was a chore. I had to write ‘Do your Words’ on my ‘to-do list every day for a week to remind myself, and everyday for a week I sat down and started with ‘I’m not sure I even have anything to write about today but…’. But, I would start with something I had been thinking about and before I knew it half an hour and 800 words had flown by. And I was not just writing, I was thinking quite productively, making connections between the first little idea and all the other ideas that connected to it and flowed through me and onto these pages. And every day I did it it got easier. I have not kept up with the website, but I have gone back to my pen-and-paper research journal and have started scribbling and drawing in there more frequently. And it does actually feel like I am moving forwards, even if what I am writing about is not all going into the Thesis. I am moving forwards – and the writing is the thinking and this is useful work, and not at all a waste of my precious PhD time.

I think it would be valuable to encourage all students to find time to write just for themselves about things they are reading, a problem they encountered in a lecture, something that is puzzling them, a new concept or idea that has got them excited… there is so much that they can be encouraged to write about. And they can write about all of this in any language they choose to and in any form – with words or picture or both. Too often writing in academia is made to seem separate from all of the other academic activities that are part of it, like reading, speaking and thinking. We don’t only think before we write; we think while we write and after we write, and we need to try to open students’ eyes to the process that is writing, and help them see beyond just the ‘product’ that they are writing. If we only focus on the destination we miss so much of the richness in the journey. Well, that has been my learning, and I am going to be spending far more time with my scribbles, as well as my formal chapters in progress, because the latter won’t be quite as good without the former.

Editing and proofreading: why we need to know the difference

Image from The Room 10 Wiki

Image from The Room 10 Wiki

I am writing this post because of a moment of clarity I had recently regarding some of the ways in which students ask for help with their writing when they come to the Writing Centre. For years we have been telling students that we will not edit or proofread their work for them, but that we will rather guide and advise them on revisions and help them to produce a more acceptable (and accepted) piece of writing. We hope that along the way they will grow in self-confidence, too, and come to believe that they can do this thing called ‘academic writing’. We also tell lecturers that we won’t edit or proofread for their students when they ask us to help with their students’ ‘poor language’. This ‘we don’t edit or proofread’ statement becomes a kind of mantra after a while. And recently I had a moment where I realised quite clearly that there is a big difference between these two things and that it might be important for students, lecturers and the Writing Centre itself to understand the difference.

Proofreading is generally taken to be the act of going through a piece of writing and picking up ‘surface errors’ and correcting these for the writer (often proofreaders are paid to do this task). Errors that are commonly corrected in academic writing might include typographical errors, spelling mistakes, pointing out missing references or mismatches between reference lists and what is in the text itself, as well as formatting inconsistencies. The proofreader needs to be an expert, I believe, in the grammar and syntax of the language the writing is using in order to find and fix these errors, but they don’t necessarily need to be a expert in the subject matter to do a good job.

Editing is something quite different. Editing can be taken to mean helping a writer to polish and revise their work by pointing out different kinds of errors that cannot be fixed by the editor but need, more often than not, to be referred back to the writer. An editor reads with understanding and some depth, and comments on issues like repetition of ideas, paragraphs that are out of order leading to a muddled structure, poor organisation and expression of ideas and concepts, coherence and sense-making in a piece of writing – these are just some of the things they can work on with a writer. Thus, an editor does need to have some knowledge of the subjects the writers are working on in order to comment on whether ideas have been properly construed or arguments persuasively constructed. But all editors are critical readers, and can give useful advice on revisions even if they are not subject experts. I think the level of expertise needed in an editor may also depend on the kind of help the writer needs and perhaps also the subject itself.

I think writing tutors are editors. I think we do the work of an editor when we point out parts of students’ essays that are muddled, or missing, or not quite clear. We don’t correct the mistakes, but we help the writers work out how they might do so. I think what we mean when we say we don’t edit is that we don’t proofread, and also that we won’t do the writing for the students – and this is true. But perhaps we need to consider changing our mantra. How about: ‘We listen, and we read your work with a critical and practised eye, and we help you edit and revise it effectively’. It’s longer, but more accurate.