Last night I performed an interesting ritual. I looked at all of my books that I have collected over the years and separated them by broad genre - children's and young adult literature, books that remind me that I am sometimes referred to as a professor, a whole section of books related to massage therapy, and, perhaps my favorite: the 'other' category. This includes books that I just love by various authors; it just happens to be dominated by the works of one Mr. Stephen King. I could write whole essay collections based upon this newest organization. Oh wait, I already have. I will probably write more.
Anyway, I liken this to the idea of pre-writing. As I felt I have grown as a writer, I have simultaneously embraced the idea of pre-writing. I will admit that I often found this difficult in years past. I would just start writing whatever came to my head. Some of it was good; some will never again see the light of day. I find myself consciously composing outlines and themes even when I am not actively writing. I still believe in handwriting. I write everything out in advance, well, most everything. These words are being typed for their original entry into my canon. This is one of the only projects I ever just type in some extemporaneous style. I suppose I do that because it is akin to how I teach. I know the material, and while I may need to look at reference books to keep me organized in my thought process, I just go with it.
It may be a stretch, but I suppose this is an example of free-writing, which just so happens to be one of the pre-writing strategies. (Did you like how I did that?) But, I'm afraid I'm ahead of myself. Whenever I formally begin teaching the writing process, I always start with a bad joke. There is a rapper (rap artist?) named Dr. Dre. I honestly couldn't tell you he was singing if I heard him, so perhaps I should stop referencing him. Anyway, I make a really bad joke and say that Dr. Dre has a cousin who teaches the writing process. His name is P-Dre. I write on the board, "Plan. Draft. Revise. Edit." The students groan, but they often remember.
As I approach this topic, fully aware that every person has his or her own writing style and level of experience, I forewarn them to take in the gist of it and use whatever is found to be useful. These steps are not necessarily sequential.
I tend to teach pre-writing and drafting simultaneously because I think many of the concepts overlap. I encourage students, when they are writing a report on something that they already know something about, to free-writing their thoughts and knowledge on the topic. Researching information to 'get it right' is its whole separate demon. However, I encourage them to envelop the facts that others have written within their free-writing. It gives the writer a sense of ownership. There is nothing I find more boring than a rehash of factual information with no sense of the writer's voice.
For the students who cannot just start writing, I encourage the use of a word web or similar brainstorming activity. By writing out phrases they think of when contemplating a topic, they often find they have a lot of sub-topics to address. This also helps in forming an outline of where the essay can go.
I think a major factor that is not always pushed in teaching writing is the importance of thought. We live in such a rushed society that perhaps we are losing the ability to just stop and think before we start a task. Personally, when I start a new project, I spend a lot of time just thinking about it before ever putting anything down in handwriting. The process becomes less daunting when we have had time to plan in out first.
I have shared the wisdom of other authors: no one ever gets it completely right on the first try. You have to write and re-write and write and maybe even re-write again. I can't say I live by the extremity of this rule, but I openly admit that what you see is edited, in most situations. When a student receives back my heavily edited papers, he or she is likely to comment that oh, I knew that. This makes me flinch. If he or she had only re-read it, the mistake may have been found. I don't know why the concept of proofing seems so foreign to some people, but it is a pattern I wish would change.
Okay, so we've touched briefly upon planning and drafting.
The third step (PDRE) is revising. This is when you look at the entire content of the piece. Ask yourself, does it flow? Does it make sense? Have you made all the necessary transitions? Is there information left out? This is usually the step when I reference the introduction and conclusion. I will often ask my students how many struggle with "just starting" the paper. Many hands often go up. When I tell them to write the introduction last, I receive some askew glances. But that's not how I was taught...
This idea is not mine: how can you know what you are going to say until you have said it? Write your body (your supporting paragraphs) and see what it is you have, in fact, written. You may have gone in a direction you never intended, but you came up with something interesting and unique to you. Go back after and write an introduction that invites your readers into wanting to go on the adventure with you.
The revision phase is also when you leave them with an amazing conclusion. Please, for the love of all good things, do not begin with "In conclusion." This is so hackneyed it makes me cry inside. Your ending should not be a summary either; this just insults your readers. (I throw in here that in some type of writing, such as lengthy business reports, a summary is standard.) Instead, keep on bringing them with you. Draw some profound conclusion. Take the theater expression of "Always leave them wanting more." Your ending should be just as good so that your reader wants to go on another trip with you.
Boy, I'm putting a lot of pressure on this hub's ending.
The fourth stage in the writing process is editing. This is where all the nitpicky rules of grammar (see most of my other hubs) come into play. Good grammar is essential to your writing. Stephen King discusses this brilliantly in his On Writing. Check it out.
Even as I have been musing on this, I acknowledge that there is so much more to good writing than what I have tried to speak to a collective audience. [There are apparently over 1000 of you who have read my hubs. I know this doesn't include repeat readers, but it's still pretty darn cool.] Some of the more important rules taught by the masters that I try to live by include the following:
- Write. Every day. Write something, even if it is complete crap. Write.
- Read. Every day. Read something you truly love and every once in a while, tackle something you never thought you'd read.
- Plan. [You should see the lists of projects I have in my office.]
- Don't stay on any one project too long. Mixing up what you are working on makes each work really amazing.
- Know when to stop and move on to something else.
- Read. This time I am referring to your stuff. Go back and re-read what you have already written. It is my idea of the ultimate ego boost.
- Share. This is the scariest part, perhaps. Share your writing. As one of my favorite songs preaches when referring to art, "if no one gets to see it, it's as good as dead."
Okay, kids. I think I'm going to wrap this up. Okay, I'm going to reread it and run it through spell and grammar check before publishing it, but you get the point.
Thank you for reading, and keep writing.