Though tons of attention has been paid to what good college writing looks like and to how bad student writing typically is, the writing process movement has made a radical breakthrough in terms of getting more students to actually write better.
Simply put, the idea behind “the writing process” movement is this: we ought to pay attention not just to what
students write but also to how
they go about writing. In practical terms, this means that when we assign writing, we would do well not just to give instructions on what the final product should look like but also to give instructions on the process students should take to get to such a final product and (this is key!) do something to hold students accountable for engaging in that process.
On a personal note, I should say that I consider the idea of the writing process—and, more significantly, the practice of the writing process—to be the single most important thing that I learned when I was a student. The skill of engaging in the writing process allowed me to learn deeply throughout college, gave me a significant advantage in graduate school, and set me on track to be a productive scholarly writer. Now I realize that the reason the writing process made such a difference for me is because I “caught it” and engaged myself in it. I realize that what happened to me is not likely to happen for many of my students. Nonetheless, I still maintain that most students can benefit from being instructed on and held accountable for the writing process. Though students are often taught about the writing process in their first-year writing courses, what they learn there needs to be developed and reinforced in every other course they take that requires them to write.
On a practical note, paying attention to the writing process as a teacher means giving instruction on and holding students accountable for such things as invention, drafting, feedback, revision, and editing. The more important the assignment, the more attention the process should receive.
I like to think in terms of worst practices, best practices, and good enough practices. The idea is to avoid the worst practices because they are counterproductive; understand what the best practices are so as to have something to measure whatever practices one ends up using against (and in case one ever has the resources to implement them); and settle for the good enough practices because that's the best that can reasonably be done in many circumstances. In terms of the writing process, worst, best, and good enough practices include such things as the following.
Give instructions for a writing assignment, collect it when it's due, and then grade and correct the work.
If this is the way that professors assign writing, then we may know why so many are not only frustrated with the quality of the writing they receive from students but also overwhelmed by the amount of work it takes to grade papers. This assign-collect-correct approach should be avoided as much as possible for any substantial writing assignments, though assigning and collecting (but not “correcting”) is perfectly okay for informal, low-stakes writing assignments, such as journal writing, where the actual quality of the writing does not matter so much.
Give written instructions, give and have students analyze examples, have students come up with evaluation criteria, conduct and require brainstorming sessions, conduct and require drafting sessions, break the assignment into smaller parts, collect drafts of different parts of the assignment, assign informal peer review, assign formal peer review, give instructor feedback on a draft, conduct and require revision and rewriting sessions, conduct and require editing sessions, and collect and grade with a rubric, comparing the revisions made against the feedback already given.
Obviously, teaching and facilitating the writing process through all these best practices is time intensive. But it does yield results. The full-scale implementation and support of the writing process is usually reserved for classes that focus on writing (e.g., English composition, writing in the discipline courses, thesis hours, capstone courses, etc.) and classes that focus on some other content but are nonetheless writing intensive.
Good enough practices
Give written instructions, assign brainstorming, give and have students analyze examples, assign drafting, assign informal peer review, assign revision, collect and grade with a checklist
. Such practices often take less effort than the worst practices and produce better results. They do, of course, cost something in terms of class time and calendar space. But adding a few supports for the writing process generally pays off in terms of the quality of writing and learning that results. Taking the process slowly may mean that less “gets covered,” but it also means that what does get covered gets learned more deeply.
Contact Paul T. Corrigan at email@example.com.