An Experiment in Teaching Writing: A Look Inside the Sausage Factory

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.

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I'm hoping that your lead-by-example technique pays off. One key difference between what you're doing and what your colleague did is that in this case they know which draft is yours, whereas your colleague's students may not have known which abstract was a ringer.

One analogy which your students might relate to is the Harry Potter series. The first book was reasonably tight. Since J. K. Rowling was an unknown when she wrote that book, the publishers certainly edited that book. By the fifth book (FD: I haven't read the last two installments) the action drags through a book about twice the length of the first installment; my guess is that by then the publisher knew that people would buy whatever Rowling wrote and therefore didn't bother to edit the book. The point being that being a known bestselling writer might get you out of revising your draft, but most writers will be edited, and there is a reason for it.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 14 Feb 2012 #permalink

For teaching purposes, it sounds like the focus is on seeing the changes- in which case there are helpful shortcuts for comparing documents. That would allow your students to focus on the substantive consequences of an edit rather than on a hunt-and-tag exercise.

Microsoft Word has a feature that allows you to directly compare two versions of a document: that would be a quick, visual, and very helpful way for your students to see what gets changed in each draft.

Or, you could upload multiple versions as edits on a Mediawiki page, and they could compare the current version to any arbitrary previous version. (a feature that's built into wikipedia and similar sites) The downside is that wikipedia sometimes tags small edits as entire changed sentences.

In all, this sounds like a fun exercise. Some things I ask students to watch out for in rewrites include: "Can you rewrite this sentence using half as many words?", and the "Main Idea Scavenger Hunt".

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.

You left that in as an example of the need for editing, right?

By justawriter (not verified) on 14 Feb 2012 #permalink

"Nothing else I've tried in teaching students to write has really worked, though, so it's worth a shot."

I think the bigger problem is outside the classroom - maybe it's different in the US but many of my students are working significant hours outside of their courses, their work looks rushed and like a first draft because it largely is.

By Alan Smithee (not verified) on 14 Feb 2012 #permalink

I think that in any creative endeavor, it is easy to become beholden to your initial ideas. I know from personal experience, for example, that the changes I make as I revise something are often only superficial. One thing I have always wanted to try is something like this: "Choose N sentences from your original draft. These are the only sentences you can keep for your next draft."
Or something along those lines. That way, they keep the skeleton of the paper but have to rewrite the rest with new wording, perhaps discovering better ways of presenting things along the way.

Interesting idea. On the same note, sometimes it's easier to see what's wrong with other people's writing than your own. Might be interesting to try peer editing and revision.

Do you submit rough drafts for publication? I think not. You submit what you think is final only to have to revise it, so I suggest drop calling it a rough draft and instead call it a finished paper to be followed by a revised paper.

I think Lord is on to something. A rough draft is not intentionally flawed. A writer is supposed to have done his best to produce a finished work. But the first version still isn't as good as it could be, and criticism from someone else can point out flaws that any writer is blind to.

I'm not sure how to convey that to people who don't get it. Perhaps it would be helpful to give the students all the versions of your article without specifying their revision order, and invite them to rank the versions, giving reasons for their choices. This will force them to see how much critique and revision can improve things.

Once you have established that critique and revision produce effective improvements, you can start talking about what sorts of changes make a real difference.

(Hopefully the students will agree that your final version is the best one.)

As a matter of terminology, it might be useful to stop talking about "rough drafts" and instead call them "first version", "second version", and so on. Eventually, one of the versions becomes the "final version" either because the writer ran out of time or because two successive versions weren't particularly different.

By Johan Larson (not verified) on 14 Feb 2012 #permalink

I hate to say it, but this approach isn't going to work terribly well. Anything that distracts for the student's writing is just that, a distraction. Students don't learn writing by comparing examples to their own work because they're not capable of comparing their own work to examples. You can't show students the process, you have to make them do the process. Understand that students tend to write papers during a handful of sittings within a day, maybe two, before the deadline. Sure, you assign rough drafts, but guess what? They're writing that rough draft within hours of the deadline too. You're better off requiring them to show you sources and short reflections on those sources a week before the deadline. This gets them thinking about the content. Then, give them a short list of do's and don'ts for the rough draft and tell them you absolutely positively do not want a thesis or concluding paragraphs in the rough draft. Why? Students tend to write papers starting at the beginning and ending with the conclusion. The problem is the opening paragraph ends up bearing little resemblance to the rest of the paper and the concluding paragraph often sounds like a completely different paper than the intro. Mark the hell out of the rough drafts. I mean tear them a new one. Destroy them and take no prisoners. Then, in person tell them you're impressed with the work they've done so far. Give them an updated list of do's and don'ts and ask for the final draft, including the opening and concluding paragraphs. One of the do's will be that they are to write the opening paragraph last and threaten them with the very real possibility that you will return the paper ungraded if you don't like the intro paragraph. Now here is the real kicker. None of this will work if you only do it once. You have to do this at least twice in the semester for them to begin to understand process. If you do this just once, the students will think you're just being random and pernicious. If you do it twice, suddenly you're the guy teaching writing and they'll respect you for it. How can you do this more than once you ask? Simple. Don't actually read every word of every paper. I'm serious. If your goal is to teach writing, you can provide constructive feedback on 3 pages of a 5 page paper. If the first two pages have issues, I promise you the same issues are only getting worse on pages three, four, etc. Stop closely reading after three pages. Gloss over the rest. Take a close look at the citations and go onto the next paper. You're not going to make the kid the next great non-fiction master in one paper but you do have a chance of making her a much better writer by requiring her to apply your feedback to another paper.

I was going to ask if you are allowed to give students an "F" for their submission that is not a draft (or insist on a revision before grading it) and suggest that you read Dr. Crazy's blog about teaching writing. Then I discovered that her latest post…

was on the very topic you bring up here: the failure of students to transfer what they learn in composition classes to other classes (even other English classes) and how she deals with it. Quoting from 1/3 of the way into the article: "First of all, just because a student is able to succeed in a class devoted to writing, it doesnât mean that the student will understand that what he or she has learned there is supposed to be applied elsewhere. Second, and I really do believe this, students are often only as capable as what is demanded of them ...."