Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Four Components of a Good Writing Process

For those of you that really like the standard "writing process," I'm really sorry to break it to you, but the idea that there is one "writing process." is a stretch at best.  The idea that kids need to learn that one specific process and it will work for every kid and every writing assignment is a hoax.  Ask professional writers and they will each have a process.  Many of these processes will have overlapping characteristics, but no two authors will have a system exactly like the next - even if you compare two authors of about the same age, writing in the same genre, whose work is of about the same quality.

The Writing Process as it is Taught in Many Schools:

While there are many variations on this, some with one or two more steps or one or two fewer, or even some that put Proofing after revising, this is the general idea of how writing is taught in schools as one specific "process."
  1. Pre-writing is a process that includes brainstorming, choosing the audience and organizing one's thoughts and ideas.  This is the step that includes brainstorming and writing outlines and/or flow charts.
  2. Drafting is the part of the process where those organized ideas get turned into fairly coherent and complete sentences, paragraphs and papers or stories.
  3. Proof-reading is when children or other authors are asked to check for "correctness."  This is when a focus on spelling, punctuation and other grammar and mechanics issues can be addressed.
  4. Revising is the fourth step. This is the part where whole sentences or sections may be re-written to clarify an idea or create better "flow."
  5. The final step might be labeled "publish" or "share" or "turn-in" for many kids.  This is when the piece is totally finished and shared with others and then the process is considered to be finished.
The Problem with This Model:

I'm not saying teaching kids "the writing process" is a waste of time and shouldn't be done.  What I am saying is that forcing kids to all fit with the same process is bound to "leave some children behind" rather than "leave no child behind."  The writing process is meant to help in the generation and organization of one's thoughts in order to get them written down in a way that will make sense to others.  This is a good thing, but "the process" taught (whichever version is chosen) doesn't work for everybody.  Instead, I suggest teaching there are parts of the process writing can be broken down into.  Which order the steps are done in and exactly how - is dependent upon the peculiarities of the person actually doing the writing.  Accept that, teach that, and we will be much further down the road to encouraging more kids to use their writing skills the best way they can to still achieve a functional or even outstanding level in their writing quality. 

I remember being given outlines to write in fifth or sixth grade where I was supposed to outline what I wanted to say before I wrote it as part of "pre-writing".  This is one valid way to go about the process of writing, except it was a lot easier for me to free write, get my ideas out and then go back and edit for clarity and meaning.  I would move things around, rearrange paragraphs and sentences within them and then turn in an essay that received an A.  The problem was, I was supposed to turn in an outline in-between that was difficult for me to write.  My teacher wanted to help all of us be organized about our "writing process" and that was fine and good, but her version of the process didn't work for me.  It locked up my creativity and made me feel frozen when it was time to sit down and actually write the paper.  Having to follow my own outline, prevented me from being able to think of good sentences.  My ideas wouldn't flow anymore and I'd get "writer's block."  I adjusted by writing out my essays the night before the outline was due (meaning I had to get the assignment finished sometimes a week ahead of schedule) and then worked backwards to create the outline from my essay.  No one - not even my parents knew this.  I knew I wasn't doing things in the prescribed order, but I was getting the assignments done and I was still pleasing the teacher. 

What a waste of time right?  I lost sleep over it, trying to get it all done in one night like that and my parents probably thought it was a result of me having procrastinated, but since I was a generally good student they were present and supportive but left me to my own devices when it came to school work unless I asked for help.  I didn't think I needed any help - I was doing what was asked of me - sort of.  If my teachers and parents had realized what was going on, perhaps they would have been flexible and let me out of writing the outline understanding that I still managed to turn in organized work, perhaps not.  Perhaps, I would have been taught I was a bad writer because I couldn't form an outline and I wouldn't be writing this article today.  Most likely, the result would have been something in the middle - who really knows?  What I do know is a lot of kids don't use outlines and are never taught useful alternatives that are out there today. 

The Writing Process as Component Parts

I propose that teaching kids there are many ways to construct a "writing process" but all writing processes include the following four elements would be a more flexible way to teach the components of writing to kids. 

You can still offer up for the kids assignments related to each component, but honor the idea that every some children might need more proofing/revising cycles with each cycle more focused on one rule they check for, while others might be able to be more thorough and take longer for each of fewer cycles.  It also honors the kid that might want to do some of his or her organizing of ideas after the first attempt at drafting instead of insisting organization must always happen first.
  • Idea Generation - This clearly needs to happen at the beginning of the writing process, but isn't limited only to the beginning.  Sometimes, as writing is taking place new ideas are also generated.  During revisions new ideas are often needed in order to do the revising successfully.
  • Drafting and Revising - This is the creation part of the writing process.  In drafting a writer is getting the ideas into a format others can access, but this can also happen in a number of different ways.  Perhaps a very visual "writer" will get his or her ideas down in pictures first, edit for plot points, order, length and suspense, even themes and character development and then come back and actually start writing.  In revising, an author might be re-working a portion of a piece of writing to work out a kink that was found in proofing or editing.
  • Proofing, and Editing  - This process happens almost continuously throughout the writing process and alternate with revising numerous times.  Proofing and editing both have to do with checking that the writing already completed will make sense to the intended audience.  The writer/proofer must consider order, organization, transitions, grammar, mechanics, flow, clarity, spelling, symbolism, redundancy etc.  Problems found in the writing are sometimes easy to fix with a quick Edit, and sometimes require revision.  In the case where revision is needed, more idea generation might also be needed similtaneously, new writing and further editing and proofing of that new writing will be needed.
  • Publishing or Sharing  - Clearly, this is the last part of the process.  However, sometimes even as an adult I might share or "publish" something and then get feedback in the sharing that inspires me to go back and complete another proofing, editing and revision cycle (or two).  Even new editions of books are sometimes revised slightly between edition releases to update out-of-date information or simply make subtle grammatical changes or fixes.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with teaching kids these components and showing them a "typical" way someone might move through them, I'd just argue we need to be flexible in how that movement happens.  Why are kids taught that organization of ideas happens before drafting?  Why are they taught there is one way to write?  This simply is not the case.  We need to stress that published authors usually do multiple revision cycles mixed in with multiple periods of Idea Generation and Writing.  No one is perfect, by suggesting to kids the writing process is as linear as is often taught, we are basically setting them up to fail in writing - including those kids that are particularly talented thinkers but not especially gifted at getting their thoughts onto paper the first time.

Writing Tasks for your ADHD Student: Part 1 - Chunking

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