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.