This is always the point in the semester when I curse my decision to teach writing – and especially to teach the writing process. I don’t so much teach the writing process as a lesson, but as an experience and that is the problem. For all of our lofty classroom conversations about ideas, audience, and structure and all the brainstorming, journaling and reflection we do, there always comes that moment of truth when students submit a draft of their paper or project to the class workshop. And now, I am forced, against my will, to give them advice that hopefully will make their next draft better. It is a lot of work. It is time consuming. It is life draining. What is especially depressing is that for all the hours I spend passing along this advice only a fraction of the advice will be taken and often that fraction will consist almost exclusively of surface errors and easy fixes (“reword this sentence” will be acted on while “rethink your organization” will be ignored).
Why are students so resistant to drafting?
Of course, not all of them are. This is also the point in the semester when I receive a lot of feedback about my successes and failures as a teacher in the form of both anonymous class evaluations and through students’ final reflections about what they have learned and how they have grown. In both of these, students’ reactions to this process of learning to draft and revise tend to the extreme, if opposite, ends of the spectrum.
Some students continue to resist and protest against “meaningless work” and “writing the same paper over and over” while others celebrate breaking the habit of “writing the night before an assignment is due” and “learning to be a writer.” I am thrilled to read that some students “finally understand what it means to be a writer” and are confident that they are “on their way.” But then there are the others…
They do not want to think about their writing and do not want to invest anything (certainly not much time let alone blood, sweat, or tears) in their writing. They have been taught a formula to write during their K-12 education and do not understand why I can’t give them a simple formula for college writing as well. Or worse, they have mastered that K-12 formula which has served them well on standardized tests (which is, after all, why so much K-12 writing focuses on this formula) and so when I question that formula or fail to grade a formulaic essay with anything less than an “A” then it is because I am a #@$%&.
I love drafting. Learning about drafting changed my life (and not just my writing life – it made me a writer which made my professional life possible). Even now, warning nerd sighting ahead, just the simple act of reading the definitions for draft supplied by Merriam-Webster makes me smile. The first definition “the act of drawing a net” is actually a wonderful description of the way I begin writing. My first drafts almost always involve casting a wide net as I long ago mastered the art of the “Shitty First Draft” advocated by Anne Lamott. I could actually write a whole blog post just about the definitions of draft and maybe I will on another day, but the point is that I am an enthusiastic drafter and sell it with evangelic zeal as well as build it into the structure of all my classes, but not all my students are buying.
I think some of the problem is that until you have really seen what a difference it makes in your writing then drafting just seems like a lot of unnecessary work – and even more work if you are involved in a workshop or feedback loop of some kind. This is when I try to explain to my students that drafting may appear to be more work, but it really isn’t because drafting is actually a lot more efficient and productive work. In racing, cycling and motorsports, drafting or slipstreaming is well-known to reduce the expenditure of energy and I believe there is a similar effect involved in writing drafts. Unfortunately, no photographers have captured cool visuals to demonstrate this effect.
Paula Krebs writes in “Next Time, Fail Better” that humanities students need to learn how to learn from failure, but I believe this is something we can all learn to do better. How can I teach my students to think about failure in a more positive way? How can I teach my students to learn from their mistakes? How can I teach them to understand that some failure is expected along the way? How can I teach them that there is not only no such thing as the perfect first draft but typically the final draft is far from perfect as well. I don’t know yet, but I have some ideas I want to try. As Krebs also writes, teaching is all about learning from failure. Every semester is a fresh draft of classes and lessons we have taught before as well as some shitty first drafts. I know that I am far from that finished, polished product (or teacher) I dream of becoming. But the good news is that my next draft is due in only a few weeks.