Writing process assignment
Introspecting on the academic writing process, and writing difficulties
Traditional approaches to teaching academic writing treated writing as a product -- an assignment was given, the students were simply told what to write about, and the students went home to write it up, and then turned it in -- without substantive instruction given on how to actually craft a paper. In this approach, evaluation of papers focused on mechanical and prescriptive aspects -- so-called rules of punctuation, grammar, and typography -- and insufficient attention was given to crafting arguments, contents, and support. The process approach emerged in college L1 writing classrooms in response to the failures of the product approach, and this method has become comomon-place in L2 writing instruction.
The process approach to writing focuses on teaching students a systematic approach to writing, and such classes may involve a lesson where students introspect on their writing process – their pre-writing strategies, their drafting and revision process, and other aspects of their writing. Many students can find this helpful for identifying some of their problems, and for learning to use more pre-writing techniques. It is also designed to get them to treat writing as a multi-step process, to revise more systematically, and to focus on more important content-level issues in revision rather than on mechanical and grammatical details.
My approach goes further by addressing the problems they have with writer's block and procrastination, which often have similar roots. These may be because the have chosen a topic that is too broad, and they cannot figure out how to start because it is overwhelming. In this case, a brainstorming technique could help identify a more specific topic. This could be because the topic is properly specific, or too specific, and they lack sufficient information, and need to gather information and ideas first.
Often, though, it is due to psychological barriers. They may have internalized negative voices of criticism from past teachers or parents, which paralyze them and cause anxiety when trying to do an assignment. They may suffer from perfectionism, which makes them worried about what the professor will think about their writing, or the grade they will get, the poor quality of their draft, or such. They could be stressed or burned out, and may need a break, or may need to break the task into smaller, more doable chunks. They have to accept that a seemingly poor, incomplete draft is simply a necessary first step to a process of revision and improving the paper. In the short term, they may learn to focus on brainstorming and prewriting techniques to get them over the obstacle of the assignment at hand. Over the long term, they need to introspect on the sources of their blocks and confront them.
2 Class procedure
In my writing class, I have students discuss these issues in groups and then we discuss them together as a class. Then they write a short paper evaluating their writing process and their difficulties. In short:
- In small groups, students are asked to describe their writing process
- In small groups, students then share about their difficulties, such as writer's block and procrastination, and are asked to think about causes of these blocks.
- The instructor leads a full-class discussion, including types of brainstorming and prewriting techniques that students might find helpful, the psychological barriers behind these blocks, and ways of overcoming them.
- Students write a short paper in which they not only describe their typical writing process (say, for writing an academic paper assignment in a college course), but also evaluate their process, discuss their problems in writing, possible reasons for these, and maybe some potential solutions for their particular situation.
This should focus on not what they think they should do, but what they really do, and why. This can be a good opportunity for class discussion of motivational problems and psychological barriers to writing or learning, especially if they have had bad educational experiences, or have come from high-stress learning environments, which may have hurt their self-esteem.
3 Assignment description for students
Traditional writing classes viewed writing as a product. The teacher gives an assignment, the students go home, produce a paper, and turn it in. What happens in between was given little attention. Nowadays language teachers recognize the importance of the process of writing – how a writer goes about planning the essay, pre-writing methods, drafting, and multiple stages of revisions (ideally), and finally, a final version.
For you, it would be helpful to introspect on your your own writing process, and then guide those you tutor to do so as an initial exercise, before you two start working on an actual assignment. Describe your writing process from start to finish, including the following:
- How do you go about doing a major writing task, in English or Korean, at school or work?
- How do you get started?
- How do you get comfortable?
- How do you brainstorm ideas and organize them?
- How, how often, and how much you revise your paper?
- How similar or different is your writing process for different kinds of projects?
- How similar or different is your writing process for assignments in English versus those in your native language?
- If you have writer's block, explain how you deal with it, and perhaps what causes it (e.g., perfectionism, lack of ideas, too much information to deal with, or negative voices from your past that you've internalized).
Writer's block refers to the difficulty that one has in getting started on a writing assignment, e.g., when a person experiences a mental block and cannot focus, cannot get started writing, cannot organize his/her ideas, cannot get past the introduction, or such. Writers can learn to reflect on the possible causes of writer's block, which is usually due to the reasons in the next section on prewriting techniques.