Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Friday, October 5, 2012

Are you spending enough time thinking about writing?

My students don’t spend enough time thinking about writing – and probably yours don’t either. I understand why. After all, they have lots of other things on their mind. And to be honest, I sometimes don’t think about writing as much as I should and this is my field of interest, my passion, and the driving force behind my paycheck.

As a writer who spends a lot of time with other writers, I also know that too much thinking about writing can be a bad thing – a dangerous thing. It often leads to the two primary dangers facing writers (well the two leading dangers after avoiding the siren call of Words With Friends) -- spending so much time thinking about what to write or how to write it you actually forget to write. Either rabbit hole can lead to madness and put an immediate end to productivity.

 The truth is that for most of our students too much thinking is not a problem. I want to blame our current education system for this lack of thinking. After all, our obsession with assessment and interminable pushing to teach to the test has created a monstrous education system which offers very little time for simple thinking and reflection. Even worse, there are only penalties and no rewards for encouraging thought and inquiry in the typical K-12 setting. But that is another blog post. I must confess that even though I grew up in a kinder, gentler era of education where there was time and energy devoted to reading, writing, and creativity, and my teachers were not worried about how test scores would impact their job, I did not spend a lot of time thinking about the art and craft of writing. And I KNEW that I wanted to be a writer, so I can only imagine that my classmates spent even less time on it.

I believe that this is a problem, this lack of thinking about writing, we should worry about as writing teachers. Many of my peers want to spend a great deal of time obsessing about the two dangers I mentioned above – the what and the how of writing. In fact, that is what my students obsess about the most as well (hmmm, perhaps there is a relationship there). We spend meetings debating whether to assign a persuasive essay or an analytical essay and, of course, students’ punctuation choices often provoke hilarity, but is that where we should be spending our time and our students’ time?

I don’t want to dismiss the importance of grammatical knowledge or genre awareness, but I believe we will not solve the challenges of either without helping our student writers develop a deeper awareness of writing. Writing is not WHAT we write and it is much more than following formatting, grammar, and spelling rules. We need to help our students think like writers before they can become writers. This concern is one of the primary motivations behind the “writing about writing” movement in composition studies. In WAW-based classes, students read theory and research about writing studies, think and discuss their reading, and then write about these ideas as well as study writing on their own.

While I have moved my own teaching away from a WAW-focus, I still focus a great deal of class time and energy on reflection and discussion about writing because I believe that writers do obsess about what and how as well as why. Writers write but they also think about writing -- and, in particular, they think about their writing. I want my students to become writers and I believe an essential part of that transformation must involve learning to think like a writer which means we must think about writing and how writers think and behave. I do this by leading weekly class discussions on these issues and requiring students spend reflective time each week on these issues as well. Not only do I hope to use these tools to transform my students into writers, but this process also helps me spend more time thinking about writing. Win-Win. Do you spend enough time thinking about writing? Do you spend enough time encouraging your students to think about writing?

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