The Process Approach to Teaching Writing
Think for a moment back to your high school and junior high school days. How were you taught to write? Were you asked to write about things that mattered to you? A favorite time of day? A moment rescued from your childhood? When you were given a book to write about, were you instructed in how to brainstorm until you found a topic that interested you? When you were confronted with a controversial issue - capital punishment, for instance - were you required to work with a group of your peers, to converse and to collaborate until you could together draft a paper that represented the views of all present? Were you instructed in how to organize your ideas? Were you expected to revise your papers? Did you meet with the teacher or with your peers to talk about how you expressed yourself, as well as what you were saying?
If you can answer "yes" to many of these questions, chances are you were taught to write according to the principles of process pedagogy.
The most important principle of process pedagogy is that writing is the result of a very complex, highly individualized process. Before process pedagogy, writing classes generally ignored the writing process. Teachers assigned papers, graded them, and then handed them back. They attended to the product - its clarity, originality, and correctness - but they did not attend to the writing process. Nor did they attend to the writers themselves.
The process theorists of the sixties and seventies took issue with this approach to teaching writing. After all, well-written essays don't fall from the sky. Rather, they are the result of a long, laborious, intensely personal process in which writers address several questions, ranging from What do I write about? to Who is my audience? to How do I structure my essay? to What sort of language and voice should I use?
Process theorists believe that writing can be understood as the culmination of several steps in a complicated process. Furthermore, they feel that these steps - which include prewriting, writing, rewriting, and all their attendant strategies - can be talked about and modeled. In short, writing-as-a-process can be taught.
At the Composition Center, we embrace the process approach to teaching writing first because this approach tells us that writing is teachable. But just as important is that process pedagogy emphasizes the usefulness of dialogue as a teaching technique. Process pedagogy challenges the traditional, authoritative models of teaching, in which professors (who know everything) talk "at" students (who know very little). Instead, process pedagogy empowers students by getting them to talk about their writing at every step of the writing process. It is this "talk" that you will be engaged in as tutors and writing assistants.
Entering a writer's process can be a terrifying, trying, exhilarating ordeal. Despite the frustrations that you are bound to encounter along the way, you'll come to love the experience of sitting down with a writer, bending your heads over a paper, and wrestling an idea into language.
Still, there are some things to think about as you step with a writer into her process.
- First, where is the writer in her writing process? Is she writing her way towards her real subject? Has she found a subject and is searching for a structure? Or is she looking for ways to make her paragraphs work?
- Second, where can you enter the writer's process? Do you want to discuss the writer's choice of topic? Her thesis sentence? Her essay's structure? Its style? These decisions must be made quickly (if you are a tutor) and wisely (no matter which position you've been assigned). Where you enter the writer's process determines what you can do in the hour or so that you will devote to the paper.
- Third, how do you enter the writer's process? Entering a writer's process is a delicate matter. You must understand how vulnerable the writer is to your criticisms. Try to think of ways to praise the writer before you begin your critique of her thinking or her prose. If you are a tutor, think about your body language. If you are a writing assistant, be careful about your tone. (Be patient: we have more elaborate advice, specific to tutors and writing assistants, elsewhere in this site.)
Virtually all current composition theorists make a distinction between process-oriented and product-oriented writing. James McCrimmon sees it as the difference between writing as a way of knowing (process) and writing as a way of telling (product). Donald Murray sees it as the difference between internal and external revision (revising in order to clarify meaning for oneself vs. revising in order to clarify meaning for the reader). Linda Flower sees it as the difference between writer-based and reader-based prose. Though these theorists differ in their definitions of the distinction between process- and product-oriented writing, there is one important point upon which they all agree: good product depends on good process.
But at some point in the writing process, writers must turn their attention from the writing process to the written product. They must transform writer-based prose into reader-based prose. To do this, they must be ready to revise, paying close attention to their prose and to the effect it may be having on their audience.
Often it's precisely at this point in the process that a writer will come to you for help. He has a draft completed, his argument seems logical and even persuasive, but he wants a second opinion. You read the essay and have some trouble following his line of reasoning. You point to a paragraph that is particularly confusing, and you ask what the writer is trying to say. He responds, "But it's all right there!" and goes on to summarize a point that he clearly hasn't made. What's happened? The writer's point is so firmly entrenched in his mind that he really believes that it's "in" the essay. You show him that it's not. You've just given him a lesson in the difference between writer-based and reader-based prose.
In moving student writers from writer-based to reader-based prose, we must show them how readers experience their work. We must focus on the product in front of us and the effect that it has on us as readers. Is a sentence vague? A paragraph jumbled? A word choice not quite on the mark? In talking with writers, we can share our reading responses with them, and so point them to what is and is not effective about their work. We can show them how to improve the impression that they make on readers by helping them to craft sentences and paragraphs that are clear, concise, and easy to follow.
Last modified: Tuesday, 12-Jul-2005 11:25:55 EDT
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