Students learn to write by encountering the different writing decisions necessary to compose their texts. Deciding what to write, how to articulate ideas, and where to place those ideas in relationship to the purpose and audience of the writing are decisions that writers make at every level of the writing process. An understanding of writing processes may help writing instructors and writers to productively and intelligently discuss good writing practices. This handbook divides the writing process into four stages:
Within these stages, writers make decisions regarding purpose, arrangement, appropriate and available arguments, style, and type of delivery (e.g. plain text, text and illustrations, text and images, or other digital media). Although these steps are ordered consecutively in this section of the handbook, the corresponding decisions are not chronologically experienced by every writer. Rather, they are recursively encountered throughout the writing process.
Preparing to write academic papers begins with critical reading. Students need to be reminded that even though some of the material they read can be persuasive, they should not fall under the spell of the printed word as authority. Authors of every text have an agenda, something that they want a reader to believe. As students get used to reading critically, they learn to recognize authors' agendas, and they can use this skill to improve their own ability to write and analyze.
Ask students to take notes either in the margins or on a separate sheet as they read. Inform them that simply highlighting a text with a highlighter is only good for memorizing a text; it does not encourage critical reading. Part of the goal is for students to be able to put the author's ideas in their own words. Students can then stop thinking of the ideas they read about as facts and start thinking of them as arguments.
When students read, they can ask themselves questions like:
Developing a focus for writing, and organizing a piece of writing, is an important step in the planning stage of the writing process. There are a number of brainstorming techniques that can help students decide on what to write, help them to organize their arguments, and guide their planning process. Remember, it is important to provide brainstorming techniques that address the diverse learning styles and experiences of students. Some of the more popular brainstorming activities include:
Each of these activities can be revisited throughout the writing process as necessary to shape ideas. It is best not to emphasize mechanical and grammatical issues at this stage of the writing process.
Generating a Controlling Purpose
At this stage of the writing process, a student pinpoints what topics and issues interest him or her and determine the focus or controlling purpose of the work. A controlling purpose may be a persuasive point, an analysis, a research report, a description, or any other cogent representation of information dictated by the context of a writing assignment. Students need to be reminded that without a controlling purpose their work will merely be an "information dump." Generating and fulfilling a purpose can guide successful writing.
Students can begin to generate the controlling purpose of a paper by asking questions of the topic (alone or with another person). When reading about this topic, they can write down authors' concerns, questions, and key arguments. Is there anything that they, as readers, disagree/agree with? Students can write a list of things they know in addition to the text's coverage of a topic. Based on the information they have gathered and considered, students can then ask themselves the question, "What is the point I am trying to make?" Subsequently, they need to consider whether the ideas they intend to present are worth reading about and in what ways their observations or analyses can contribute to a larger discussion.
In most cases, when students write, they enter a conversation that was already in progress. That conversation may be among engineering journal article writers and editors, lab researchers, literature scholars, women's studies students, or football fans. When instructors give a writing assignment they always invite students to enter a conversation that has communicative expectations and a community that has already agreed on its form and content, i.e. discourse genre. Within the classroom, invitations to join this conversation begin with writing assignments or prompts. Berkenkotter and Huckin argue that "Genres are the media through which scholars and scientists communicate with their peers. Genres are intimately linked to a discipline's methodology, and they package information in ways that conform to a discipline's norms, values, and ideology (1)." The decisions a student makes in the process of writing are always shaped by the student's ability to critically conceive the form and content of a disciplinary community. Often, a student's ability to write proficiently, or a professional academic's ability to write successfully, is dynamically related to their ability to intelligently "speak the language" of a community of interlocutors.
Students should always be aware that the audience, or the reader(s) of a piece of writing, pervasively influences the production of a writing assignment. They need to be reminded that writing frequently addresses audiences that may range from experts in the field with specialized knowledge of the subject being discussed to novices. Often a piece of writing simultaneously addresses multiple audiences. For example, a lab report can be delivered to a primary audience of development engineers and have a secondary audience of executives that will apply the findings to production. Understanding multiple audiences can help a student to expand the possible choices he or she makes in the writing process.
At first, students will tend to think of the instructor, the person who assigns the writing task and who will evaluate the writing, as the sole audience of their work. To avoid students from falling into this trap and to get them to anticipate audiences beyond the immediate classroom, instructors can determine the target audience as part of the assignment. For example, instructors can ask students to imagine the audience for a particular piece of writing to be fellow students, a specific demographic of society (for example, teenage Chicana girls), a specific professional group (for example, CEOs of multinational corporations), or an educated but uninitiated relative (for example, the student's grandfather). Acknowledging diverse audience backgrounds, education, race, gender, profession, nationality, (dis)ability, or the author's relationship to the reader (father, citizen etc.), will urge students to consider how much the reader may know about a topic and what views/opinions the reader may hold about that topic. An awareness of audience helps to make critical writing decisions about tone, word choice, organization, credible points of argument, appropriate level of detail and jargon, and the style of the writing.
The purpose of a writing project should be clearly determined by every student writer. Writing is intended to do some kind of work for example, to convince a reader, to report findings, to entice customers to purchase a product, or to demonstrate mastery of a particular subject. Help students to remember the purpose of their work as they write. Some instructors find it useful to have students answer the question, "What purpose will this portion of my project fulfill?"
Purpose pervades every writing decision. For example, the overall purpose of a biology lab report may be to introduce a new discovery in genetics. Smaller parts of the report serve this purpose by providing background research information to bring readers up to date with the work that the lab report is based upon, or by detailing procedure in a way that eliminates reader skepticism and verifies the results so the new discovery will find a place in future research efforts.
Within each part of a piece of writing more specific choices are made regarding the kind of arrangement, or organization, that would best serve the purpose of the writer - even word choices and sentence structure decisions can be influenced by an examination of their intended purpose. For example, a writer's overall purpose is to convince executives that a newly discovered lubricant, Purposaline, is the answer to assembly line breakdowns. This purpose can pervasively guide writing decisions at many levels. It would cause the writer to arrange arguments in a way that would most effectively convince an executive audience3 - perhaps leading to a decision to put the cost efficiency of preventing breakdowns at the beginning of the piece and ending with the technical information about the product. When presenting the technical portion of the argument, at the sentence level, the writer might decide to use more descriptive sentences that fit the technical expertise of the executives. At the word choice level, the writer's purpose might dictate a decision to phrase evidence as "saved production time" rather than "lost production time." Or, to use the word "Proposaline" rather than its compound name Proethylpolybuteratemethylsalinate.
The ways in which research is conducted differs from discipline to discipline. Researchers in different fields may approach any given subject from vastly different perspectives and ask critically distinct questions. For example, if the Statue of Liberty is the subject of study, humanists, for example an historian, may conduct research from the view point of the event at which the gift from France to the U.S. was conceived in 1865. The historian may question how this event relates to other similar events. What were the reactions of the French people to the gift? What is the significance of the event to two nations that uphold freedom and democracy as ideals? On the other hand, an English major may analyze the poem "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, located on the base of the Statue of Liberty. The student may ask what inspired Lazarus to compose the verses. Did the poet's background as a member of a prominent New York Jewish family affect the prose? What role has the poem's famous culminating lines: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free..." played in formulating notions of American identity? Another field within the Humanities, perhaps Women's Studies, may regard the significance of personifying the concept of liberty as female and may question what it means for a monument that celebrates freedom to be represented as a Caucasian woman?
A structural engineer researching the monument may be less interested in issues of human experience and instead might consider the structural matters regarding the construction of the colossal copper sculpture. How is the statue's outer copper covering designed to move independently, while still standing upright? At what wind speed does the statue sway? At what speed does the wind affect the sway of the torch, borne in the upraised hand, as opposed to the rest of the body?
A person in the arts studying the Statue of Liberty may adopt a different approach than the humanists and engineers and raise a set of entirely different questions: Did the sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, base the sculpture on an actual model? What sculptural technique did he employ? Did the sculptor's visit to Egypt affect the otherwise largely neoclassical style of the sculpture? Does Bartholdi's oeuvre consist of other grand public monuments? What do the attire, adornments, and objects held in the hands of the figure symbolically signify?
In addition to raising different questions, each discipline also adopts specific ways in which it attempts to find answers to its queries and convince people of the conclusions it draws. Readers are convinced of an argument's veracity by evidence, or proofs. Just as the questions raised about any given topic vary from field to field, evidence is also discipline specific. For example, a political scientist might consider the original copy of a historical treaty as solid evidence, while a biologist may rely on empirical data based on laboratory work.
As instructors of the second-level writing course, it may be useful to consider the following questions:
Consider and discuss with your students how the types of questions your discipline asks and the types of evidence it expects guide research and writing within the field of study.
Revision is the most productive learning practice in the writing process. It involves making changes in focus, content, organization, and style to better match the audience and purpose of the assignment. Often students will think of revising as editing and proofreading. They need to be reminded that revision is a time to re-vision the paper. That is, it is a stage in which to discover the things that work well and things that can be improved in their writing. During revision, students can identify, understand, and resolve common writing inconsistencies, including drifting purposes, indistinct points of argument, inadequate evidence, changes in tone, ineffective organization, and convoluted sentences. Since revision occurs before the final product is delivered, it is a safe place for students to learn and an essential place for instructors encouraging students to improve their writing ability.
Instructors can provide students with a set of questions to guide revision. Kitty O. Locker suggests dividing revising into three sections: 1) content and clarity 2) organization and layout, and 3) style and tone (117-18). The following questions are adapted from Locker's checklist for thorough revision (118):
Peer Group Workshops
Conducting peer group workshops is a productive revision method. Writers have the opportunity to hear feedback from their peers and make changes according to the way their work is received by this group. Peer revision provides students the opportunity to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their writing and help improve the final product. Responding to their peers' writing also helps students to become better readers and critics of their own work.
All second-level writing instructors are encouraged to form peer revision groups. Groups of three to five writers are best because they tend to encourage more discussion and produce more feedback than groups of two. Smaller groups tend to produce unmediated consensus rather than productive discussions on writing decisions.
Productive peer writing workshop groups require good time and task management and involve orchestration on the part of the instructor. Students need to be advised and trained for the tasks they will be expected to accomplish. The best way to begin training students to respond effectively to one another's writing is to model the process with the class, using sample student papers.
One method of response you might consider to guide students through the peer writing workshops is the three-column response. This method insures that the peer conference does not turn into a trading of papers, a quick read, and evaluative comments that go no farther than "good" or "no problems." The structured format of this method holds all members of the response group accountable to insightful feedback. The three-column response group may be directed as follows:
Although the three-column system may seem very structured and lacking in free exchange, it provides direction for students who frequently do not know what they are supposed to do in a peer response group. In the three-column method, the expectations are clearly defined. The conversation is directed to maintain the focus on the task at hand. The freedom to discuss more elaborately comes after the "focus work" is completed. In addition, writers have access to notes regarding their peers' suggestions.
Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff in their Sharing and Responding provide a number of additional models of response that instructors can use to conduct guided peer writing workshops (63-8). Choose the approach that best fits your teaching philosophy and writing assignment. Writing Across the Curriculum consultants will gladly work with you in the development and implementation of peer revision workshops.
Responding to Student Papers
In addition to peer writing workshop feedback, instructor feedback is indispensable during the revision process. Instructor feedback helps a student to benefit from the well-trained eye of a professional writing instructor. Instructor comments are often carefully considered by students and can create a dialog about writing with a student. Please consider the following guidelines for responding to student papers in an efficient and effective manner.
1. Good Responding Strategies
Constructive comments aim at helping the writer not only to understand his/her problems with the specific text in question, but also to develop a critical approach and strategy that can be used in future writing situations.
Talk about "the essay" not the student: When explaining problems in the text, avoid using "you," since "you don't explain well enough" can be read as a personal attack, whereas "the text doesn't explain well enough" locates the problem in the text.
Ensure your comments reflect your priorities: Respond with the assignment's primary goals in mind, using a hierarchy of priorities for responding to various elements. If 80% of your comments are about grammar, the message this may send is that grammar matters more than other elements. Yet, if all the changes you can suggest to your student are grammatical changes, it may indicate that the paper has been successfully planned, written and revised. Only editing will be necessary to produce a good final product
Advise future action: Comments should also provide guidance for future revision or learning, even if it's a final draft. In your terminal comments, you may wish to give students a list of a few things to revise or pay attention to next time, in priority order. Instead of just telling them what to avoid doing in the future, concentrate on finding positive verbs that describe the actions they should take (organize, look up, create transitions, introduce, explain, remember, include).
Positive comments: It is important to praise the text for what is done well. When revising, a student who has received no positive comments is unlikely to know what is worth keeping in the draft. He or she may actually spend time revising sections of the text that were executed well; praise is especially important when the text needs major revisions in other areas.
Explain good elements. Positive comments also function to support the student in his or her learning, and reinforce good writing strategies. Give detailed explanations of your student's good practices. Often a student has internalized a successful writing strategy and doesn't realize that it should be maintained in future writing. In addition, positive comments help to deracinate a student's enmity with their writing and to develop self-confidence in their writing abilities.
2. Marginal vs. Terminal Comments
Marginal comments refer to those you write either in the margins or directly in the text of a student's paper, whereas terminal comments refer to the usually more lengthy comment at the end of the assignment or on a separate page. Marginal comments are more suited for feedback on specific sections of the text. Terminal comments are usually saved for more global concerns affecting the whole writing assignment. It is important to provide a writer with both types of comments because their physical positioning allows you to provide different types of feedback.
Responding as a Reader - You experience the reading as a person, not necessarily as a teacher. In other words, your primary concern is reading, not evaluating.
Asking Questions - the most effective comments to help students revise and develop a critical sense of their own work are comments worded as questions. Questions can refer to content, organization, or even grammar and word choice.
Noting Patterns - Although our first tendency as graders is to mark every error we see, this practice can be overwhelming for the writer. It is more helpful to note patterns in organization, or grammar and punctuation mistakes. It is usually best to explain an error the first time it occurs and merely to note its recurrence throughout the paper. Obviously, you can't do this for every error. Note the one(s) that seems to intrude most on your ability to read the paper smoothly.
Characteristics of good terminal comments include the following:
Janis, I can really see and appreciate your compassion for the plight of the small farmer in Preble County. The article's tone conveys this well. However, the article doesn't seem to analyze the reasons why large farms are becoming more and more prevalent: what national and local factors have influenced this trend? Has there been any individual or collective resistance to this decline? Probing some of these complexities in order to contextualize the local situation would have created a much stronger article. For the next assignment, you might try a variety of invention techniques in order to consider your topic from several different angles. If you need help along the way, please come see me or have one of your classmates read and respond to a draft. Good first effort!
Realizing Student Potential
There is no formula for the most successful types of comments, thus each teacher needs to articulate a conscious rationale and philosophy for commenting in the way he or she does. In other words, many different types of comments can work as long as you understand why you comment in the way you do and how you believe these comments will help students in the future. Also, teaching individuals to locate and increase their potential writing ability is a singularly human event that requires writing instruction skills combined with the ability to build a productive relationship between the student/writer and their writing.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I reduce time spent responding?
How can I make my comments more effective?
Should I maintain an objective distance in my comments?
Yes and no. While you certainly need to omit personally derogatory comments or purely negative reactions, it is very valuable to let a student see the reactions of a real reader. Because you experience reading a student text as a reader first and a teacher (or evaluator) second, let the student see both reactions. Below are some comments that show the teacher is an honest and interested reader:
Should I try to guess what the writer really means?
Yes and no. A good reader will try to intuit or interpolate meaning based on what is stated; however, it is dangerous to assume you know what is going on in the writer's head based on a vague or ambiguous passage. Even if you personally understand a writer's hint, will most of the intended audience have the background knowledge and skill to guess the implied meaning? If the target audience includes international students who recognize English as a foreign language, would they be able to understand?
If you perceive two or more options for interpretation, this is ambiguity, and it may be useful to explain the possibilities to the student.
Should I rewrite problematic sections of the text?
No. The most successful comments to help students revise and develop their own critical sense are comments worded as questions or suggestions. Questions can refer to content, organization, or even grammar and word choice.
What do I do with a text full of grammar errors? (comma splices, articles, tenses)
Do all comments have to be written?
No, you can also deal with them orally in class or in a conference with the individual student. Also, if the class has electronic communication, you can instruct using that medium.
After writing and revision is complete the writer can then work on editing sentence level changes, mechanical/grammar, spelling, diction, and accuracy of citations, format, and other surface errors. This step has traditionally been called proofreading. Editing is an important part of the process that is often aided by the use of a style and grammar handbook. Separating the work of editing from the process of revision is an important distinction for writers to understand because a piece of writing's affect is most directly determined by the large, meaning making decisions encountered in revision.
Bartholomae, David. "Inventing the University." When a Writer Can't Write: Studies in Writer's Block and other Composing Problems. Ed. Mike Rose. New York: Guilford, 1985. 134-65.
Berkenkotter, Carol and Thomas N. Huckin. Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication: Cognition/Culture/Power. Hove, U.K. and Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Earlbaum, 1995.
Collins, James L. "Basic Writing and the Process Paradigm." Journal of Basic Writing 14.2 (1995): 3-18
Elbow, Peter and Pat Belanoff, Sharing and Responding. New York: Random House, 1989.
Locker, Kitty O. Business and Administrative Communication. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
Rico, Gabrielle. "General Principles of Clustering." Writing the Natural Way. Boston: Houghton, 1983. 35-39.
Robinson, William S. "On Teaching Organization: Patterns, Process, and the Nature of Writing." Teaching English in the Two-Year College 21 (1994):191-98.
Rose, Mike. "Narrowing the Mind: Cognitive Reductionism and Remedial Writers." Cross-Talk in Comp Theory. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1997.
Rose, Mike, Lives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievements of America's Underprepared. New York: Penguin, 1989.
Shaughnessy, Mina P. Introduction. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for Teachers of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. 1-13.
Sommers, Nancy. "Revision Strategies of Student Writers." College Composition and Communication 31 (1980):378-88.
Wiener, Harvey. "Basic Writing: First Day's Thoughts on Process and Detail." Eight Approaches to Teaching Composition. Ed. Timothy R. Donnavan and Ben W. McCelland. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1980. 87-99.
2 The distinction between discourse and genre and the definitions of these terms are subjects of continuing academic debate. For the purposes of this handbook discourse will refer to the academic language and conventions associated with a particular discipline (for example, the discourse of biochemical engineers). Genre will refer to a particular convention of writing within the disciplinary discourse (for example, within the discourse of biochemical engineering are writing genres that include: lab reporting, government regulatory writing, and grant proposals).
3 Note the pervasive influence of purpose, audience, argument, arrangement, style, discourse and genre upon each writing decision. This section foregrounds purpose, yet many writing decisions are made with other influences in the forefront.