As I’ve said a bazillion times already this term, I’m teaching a class that is about research and writing, with a big final paper due at the end of the term. Because iterative feedback is key to learning to write, they also have to turn in a complete rough draft, which I will mark up and have them revise.
One of the many, many problems with teaching writing is that too many students regard the writing of drafts as pointless busy-work. Others have no real concept of what a rough draft is— when I’ve collected drafts in the past, I often get things that would barely qualify as an outline, let alone a draft. Already this term, I’ve had to explain severl times that when I ask for a draft of the final paper, I want a draft of the whole thing.
I think this stems partly from a misconception about the nature of expertise when it comes to writing. That is, I think a lot of students believe that once you really know what you’re doing, you don’t have to write in stages. Expert writers, in this view, just sit down at the computer and crank out flawless articles, fully formed. There’s some truth to this at the college level– God knows I never did more than one draft of anything in college, before my senior honors thesis. But at the professional level, it’s nonsense; indeed, between college and now, I’ve turned into an obsessive reviser. I do multiple drafts of blog posts.
Getting students to believe this is a hard sell, though, and I’ve struggled to get them to take the process seriously. I’m going to try something different this week, though: giving them a look inside the sausage factory of the writing process. I’m going to let them see my rough drafts.
Of course, the problem with that approach is the same as the problem with assigning multiple paper drafts, namely that you have to read the same bad prose multiple times before it gets good. Which is hard to ask anybody to do for something like a book chapter, even one involving an exceptionally cute and clever dog like Emmy. However, last fall I wrote something short enough that it ought to be tolerable for this process: an opinion article for Physics World on the OPERA experiment and new media.
The total piece is only one finished page, a bit less than 1000 words. I went through a couple of drafts before getting feedback on it, first from Kate and then from Mike Banks at Physics World. My plan is to give them the first two drafts that I did and ask them to identify changes that I made between the two to improve the first draft (which was pretty bad), and changes that ought to be made to the second to make the whole thing work better. I’m going to collect these before class Friday, and see what they come up with. Then in class, I’ll show them some of the actual feedback I got from Kate and Mike, and we’ll talk about it.
The goal here is to show them that even people who write for a living need to go through multiple iterations to get a polished final product. And that the comments I got from my editors were pretty comparable to the comments I make on their assignments. Hopefully, this will convince them that assigning drafts and giving feedback is not just a pointless busy-work assignment, but an attempt to establish good habits.
I’m a little nervous about this, for a bunch of reasons. There are a whole lot of ways this can go wrong, even leaving aside the fact that my first draft was pretty bad. A number of the changes made to the piece are somewhat subtle matters of style– removing words or rephrasing sentences to give them a little more punch, and so on. There’s a decent chance that they won’t pick up on what needed fixing, in which case it could be a really awkward class. There’s also a chance that they’ll latch onto the wrong things– a colleague has occasionally tried asking students to critique abstracts for a la report, slipping his own god example into the batch, and found that students say the same sorts of things about his abstract as any of the others.
So, it’s sure to be an interesting experience, whatever happens. Nothing else I’ve tried in teaching students to write has really worked, though, so it’s worth a shot.