Friday, May 9, 2014

Giving Up on The Writing Process?

Because I'm going to be teaching in a classroom again this fall, I've been trying to solidify the lessons I've learned over my homeschooling years about learning and teaching and writing and so forth so I can use those lessons. And since writing is a way of thinking, I'm going to use this post today for that purpose.

See, one of the sacred cows of the English-teaching profession is The Writing Process. It's a primary objective on every list of objectives for every English class in the country (I'm sure) that the students understand and use The Writing Process when they write: pre-writing, roughdraft, revision, editing and proofreading, publishing . . . or some variation of that. Everyone knows that's how good writers write. There are scads of quotes out there from good writers telling us so.

Only, I'm not so sure now.

When I started homeschooling, I had a friend at church at the time who was a professional writer, and an excellent writer, and I asked him if sometime I might be able to have my daughter talk to him about the importance of The Writing Process . . . you know, revision and stuff. He listened thoughtfully and said, "Well, I'd be happy to do that, but the truth is, I don't really revise when I write." That stymied me. What do you mean, you don't revise? ALL good writers revise, right? Well, no, not this good writer. He doesn't even pre-write or plan too much either . . . he just writes.

Now, through later conversations and through working with him on various projects, I realized that, essentially, he does pre-write and revise; he just does it all in his head. You know: if you're asked to write a paragraph on your history exam explaining the causes of the civil war, you may not need to make an outline or notes or anything -- you plan it all in your head. And you don't have time to go back and revise -- you "revise" as you write. That's what he does. He's just good enough that he can do it with much bigger chunks of writing. Like, book-size chunks.

I would have been tempted to say that he's just a freak of nature, some natural-born writing savant that defies all conventions. But the thing is, my eldest daughter seems to be the same way. She hates to "plan out" her essays for school. She just confided to me that when they wrote research papers her junior year, she didn't do any of the notecards and outlines and everything they were required to do because it was just making her crazy. And she doesn't revise much once she's got it written down, either. And yet, her writing is good. The lowest score she got on a paper in her AP English class last semester was an 85 -- and that was only because the website she had to turn it in on erased her underlining and indentions and such. I might be able to make a case to her that her writing would be even better if she employed The Writing Process as prescribed, but the thing is, employing The Writing Process would make her hate writing.

So, is it better to write well, or to write with pleasure? Of course, the preference would be to do both, if I can figure out how to teach that.

Let me shift gears a bit to teaching vocabulary. I've understood for quite a while that there are levels to our vocabulary knowledge. There's our "vague sense" vocabulary, where we have a vague sense of what a word means when we read it or hear it. Putrid . . . that's something bad, I know that. There's our passive vocabulary, which are the words we don't normally think of, but we know what they mean when we see them -- we can pick them out of a thesaurus as the word we need. Repulsive, rancid . . . putrid! That's the word I want! Then there's our active vocabulary, the words that immediately come to our mind when the situation calls for them. Sniff . . . ew! What is this putrid-ness in my kitchen?!?

When a word reaches the level of our active vocabulary, it changes the way we think. And so does learning the skills of good writing. It appears that writers like my friend and my daughter have taken those writing skills we teach people to do in the stages of pre-writing and revision and they've internalized them -- they've become a part of the way they process the information in the first place. Requiring them to go through the steps of The Writing Process like I do will only make the act of writing an artificial, dreadful, despised thing for them.

Instead of being taught to go back to a roughdraft to improve the sentence fluency of her writing, my daughter needed to be taught the principles of sentence fluency so well that it changed the way she thought in sentences, so it changed the way the sentences came out of her head in the first place.

Can I teach other students like her to write that way? Probably. Can I convince parents and other teachers that I'm teaching well when I teach that way? I hope so.

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