A Fool of Myself / Technical Writing

The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.

[This is an announcement I posted in my ENG 101 class this week. I’m posting here for my records and to receive any feedback from my readers about their writing processes.]

Hi, Class,
One thing that I struggle with as an instructor is connecting the course objectives to our class activities. In my head, I know that those connections exist, but you can’t read my mind, so you’re in this class completing all these activities without being told how and without learning that A + B = C. I surmise, that this is one of the reasons there’s a lot of confusion in our class.

For today, I want to focus on this objective: Demonstrate a knowledge of the writing process.

In this class, I use prewriting activities, rough drafts, peer reviews, and revision activities to walk you through the writing process and to lead up to the final draft of each major assignment. I think the trouble you all are having with this — and I have trouble with the writing process, too — is that I am asking you to craft a piece of writing over a period of weeks. In essence, I am asking you to slow cook your writing.

But we live in a microwave society. Everything we do seems to happen instantly — even our writing. Facebook status updates are written in a matter of seconds. Emails are written in a matter of minutes. Other writing — blog posts, papers in other classes, work memos — are written in a matter of hours. We microwave our writing all day long. Heck, I am microwave writing this announcement right now!

What I’ve done a poor job of doing in this class is helping you to understand each step in the writing process and why it is important. (I am already working to fix this for the spring semester; we’ll be reading essays about the writing process and writing style and discussing them in the discussion boards.) For now, let me briefly explain why we’re working through each step of the writing process.

In this class, you complete a series of three prewriting activities for each major assignment. Additionally, we’ve used the discussion board forums to do some pre-prewriting — to get you thinking and reading about the topic for the next assignment. This step in the writing process is important because it allows us to think about what we’re writing and organize those thoughts on paper (or in our case, the screen). When we microwave write, the prewriting process takes place in our brains long (relatively speaking) before we sit down to write. Chances are that you’ve been thinking about that email you need to write for a few hours before you sit down to write it.

Rough Draft
I surmise — and I did this when I was in school, too — that many of the papers you turn in for your other classes are rough drafts. You sit down, you crank them out, you turn them in. Am I right? What you’re probably doing for the rough drafts in this class is the exact same thing. And you know what? That’s exactly what I want you to do. Sit down, crank out a draft, and turn it in. We’re all used to stopping the writing process there. For an email, the writing process stops when we hit Send. I think we turn off our ability to think any more about that writing because in our minds, the writing is over. For the rough drafts, you simply need to get something down on paper (or screen, in our case) and then open your minds to constructive criticism from your peers and to rewriting and revising what you’ve just written.

Peer Reviews
Even in the seated courses I’ve taught, peer reviews are hit or miss. Sometimes your peers will provide excellent feedback that is right on target, and sometimes it’s clear that your peers are going through the motions to get peer reviews of their to-do lists. That’s OK — you’re students! This is why I encourage you to go the Writing Center; it’s in your tutor’s best interest to give you helpful feedback on your writing. I use peer reviews because they hit another objective in this course: To analyze and evaluate others’ writing. Honestly, we should probably also practice evaluating the writing of published author’s in this class, too, and I’m working on that for future semesters. Even so, what I want you to learn from peer reviews is how to look at the requirements of an assignment and at a rough draft and evaluate how well the rough draft meets those requirements. (And as I write this, I realize that the peer review questions I ask you to answer don’t align with what I wrote in the previous sentence.) I understand that you are not professionals and that you are still students, so you might make a mistake or two on your peer reviews, but it is important that you learn how to articulate why. You’ll need this for your jobs. For example, you think Process X wastes time and money. You’ll need to be able to tell your boss, “Process X wastes time and money because Y.” You need to learn how to explain Y to your boss.

I do a lot of revising as I write, and I bet that you all do, too. The rough draft is designed for you to basically barf everything you’ve got for the paper onto the screen without a care in the world, yet we don’t write the rough draft like this. We revise as we go. So when I ask you to return to the paper days after you’ve finished the rough draft and to reorganize the structure, rewrite paragraphs, and nit pick every single sentence, I know that’s frustrating. Believe me. I have a personal blog, and I microwave write 99% of my blog posts. I’ve tried writing a rough draft (that is revised as I go along) and waiting until the next morning to revise and publish it, and I always come to one of two conclusions: 1) Ehh, it’s good enough. I’ll make a few minor changes and publish it. 2) This is utter crap. I need to completely rewrite it. Even when I come to #2 as the conclusion for the blog post, I often make a few minor changes and publish it anyway. You know why? Because revising is hard work. And it takes twice as long for me to revise something as it does for me to write the first draft! I fear that many of us go through the motions of revising (and for our class, do the bare minimum of what I’m asking you to do for the revision activities) because doing anything else takes up too much time and energy. Am I right?

The difference between proofreading and revising is that proofreading is designed to catch the itty bitty mistakes — like missing commas and spelling errors — whereas revising is moving and rewriting and tossing out huge chunks of the paper. Many of us skip from the rough draft to proofreading and we’re done. I also fear that what happens in a lot of your peer reviews is something more akin to proofreading rather than thinking critically about the draft in front of you. The proofreading activities I use in this class are essentially designed to expose you to a handful of different tactics you can use when proofreading in the real world.

Final Draft
After all this hard work, you give me your final draft and angels sing when I read it, right? That is always my hope! Truthfully, the writing process only stops when we tell it to stop, and in a perfect world — a perfect semester — we would revise and review and work on the same essay all semester long. But that’s not going to happen. And really, because we are confined to a semester, we’re not even slow cooking our writing. At best, we are still sticking it in the microwave, but we’re using the defrost button.

Wow. I wrote a lot about the writing process, but I hope this helps you to understand why I’m putting you through the paces on your essays. If you have a question or have feedback about what is working and what isn’t working, please let me know in the Q & A forums or in an email.

Ms. A

The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.” — Kahlil Gibran