Low Stakes Writing and the Choices We Make When We Write

By now, my classes have heard the term ‘The Writing Process’ countless times per class. We have discussed together what this means, what it may look like, and what kind of labor it entails. These discussions are always framed with my expectations as the facilitator of this Process. While I have full confidence that my students could give a very accurate description of what this process looks like based on our classroom discussions, the culminate effect of the readings this week has made it clear to me that talking about what the writing process means is not something we have discussed or I have communicated effectively.


I found myself thinking about how many small moments of ‘writing’ I take for granted and overlook because writing has become a habitual part of my life. Each reading made me unpack the writing process and each time the parts were laid out before me I thought, “how simple …I really never thought of it this way.” The Flower and Hayes text, “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing” offered a reminder that the metaphysical aspects and metalinguistic awareness of the writing process can sometimes focus more on the end product and the development of that product rather than what kind of inner processes and growth that occurs in the individual writer. I think it would be great to introduce students to this idea particularly because as Elbow states, writing ‘feels’ like an inherently high stakes project for students (for everyone) and there are many habits related to conceptions of writing and the process of writing that have been intuited throughout a student’s schooling, maybe without much consideration. Breaking into these pre-conceived notions of what it means to write goes hand in hand with creating a place for students to become comfortable with just writing, which is why low stakes assignments can be important in this process.

I also think that asking students what they think happens at each stage to THEM- or to their ideas as they develop through writing may be a way to engage students with the idea that the goal-oriented writing that they are doing is a dynamic process. While the writing is changing, the ideas are changing, the author is changing, and perhaps the subject is changing. Being comfortable with this is the challenge and it doesn’t help that trying to describe this, as someone for whom writing has become a habitual act, is even more difficult.


9.24 Response

After I completed the reading, I found myself thinking a lot about the Flower and Hayes article. On the one hand, I love the mathematical, almost obsessive way they break down the process of writing. The side of me who was, for a very brief moment, a declared math major, was excited to see Flower and Hayes try to capture all the intricacies of writing in a flow chart. On the other hand, the creative writer in me was shaking my head in frustration. The components and steps they describe do make sense as they define them and yet, what do they mean for an actual writer? Do some writers think about their own composing processes in these terms while they are working? (I’m certainly not thinking of “explore and consolidate” or “sub-goals” as I work. Although when I reflect on, say, the way I’ve been writing my novel, I do see that I can categorize some of what I’ve done in these terms, even if Flower and Hayes claim that doing this “after-the-fact” introspection is often inaccurate…) If we do start to think of our processes in the language of Flower and Hayes, how would that help us become better writers?

To phrase my question in terms that relate directly to this course: How can we use what Flower and Hayes outline to help students who are struggling with their writing? How can we diagnose what stages poor writers are failing to include in their own processes? For example, how do we know that students are spending too much time on top-level goals or too much time on low-level goals? How do they know what they are doing? Once we identify which important segments of the composing process they are skipping or spending too much time on, what can we do to address these issues?

It seems that asking students to write protocols of the writing of their essays, like the protocol excerpted in this article, is a good starting point. Since the theme of the week is low stakes writing, I ask: what low stakes writing assignments would reflect the findings of Flower and Hayes?


Low Stakes Writing

I’m a big believer in working on craft and practicing it regularly. My students know that they have to keep a written journal that they are supposed to put entries in 6 out of 7 days of the week. I of course give them prompts a few days of those weeks, but I am trying to encourage them to engage with the world around them in a written way, to take abstract ideas and emotions that they might struggle to put words to and find expression for them in their writing.


The low stakes writing piece by Peter Elbow particularly spoke to that and its ability to keep the students writing and practicing. He mentions that it helps their high stakes writing because they are writing so often. Writing takes practice. There are so many concepts that the students need to hone. I, of course, know that they won’t master the art in one semester. In fact, I would argue that there is no mastering writing, that it is a constantly evolving and changing form that develops with us. That’s something I try to express to my students, and I think the low stakes writing journal and prompt responses helps them realize that fact, even if it’s in a rudimentary way.


Elbow says that low stakes writing helps students become active learners. He argues that students are too often passive learners, just taking information in and not processing it or thinking about it. Low stakes writing, he argues, is a great way for students to process the information and be active thinkers. It also cuts out their reliance on a small minority of active thinkers to give the answers to them during class. In a situation like mine, where the students are timid or tired that early in the AM, the prompt that they must respond to in their journals as soon as they enter class really helps facilitate discussion and gets them thinking.  I hope it is teaching them active thinking.


Also, as Elbow mentioned, low stakes writing allows them to really think about the concepts without worrying about being graded on it. Granted, we have to “grade” it in some way, but it’s not the same high stakes level. There’s a bit more freedom there, and with that freedom the students might be more inclined to explore. The journals I have the students keep are their forever. I told them they can do what they want with their journals as long as they are constantly writing in them. They can put ticket stubs in with a report of a show or game they went to; they can paste photos that they find interesting and talk about those images. I give them a variety of prompts in the mornings- creative responses to quotes; retitling of paintings and reasoning behind the titling; break down the structure of a song and say how it reflects rhetorical strategies. They’ve been quite creative with their responses, and it’s been getting them to become more comfortable with expressing themselves. The more they realize that not everything is graded, that writing doesn’t just have to be about getting a letter grade, the more I think they will see it as another avenue for exploration.




Low-Stakes Writing; Form and Content

Peter Elbow writes, “The goal of low stakes assignments is not so much to produce excellent pieces of writing as to get students to think, learn, and understand more of the course material.” I agree with this statement and have the utmost faith in writing as a mode of learning; I always engage much more deeply with material that I write about in even an informal manner. However, I struggle with my sense that the “course material” in a writing class is how to produce excellent pieces of writing. Is it more important for the students to learn the thematic content we choose, or is it that they learn how to write well? Of course, these agendas are not mutually exclusive and form and content have a mutually productive and informative relationship; a composition class offers a particularly marked illustration of why that is the case. But if we emphasize the content as a means of achieving goals of improvements in form, does that require us to choose content about writing? I enjoyed teaching Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue,” Malcolm X’s “Homemade Education,” and Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts,” but all of these readings serve dual functions of talking about life and talking about writing. I had initially planned my course to focus on a theme of professional and socioeconomic inequalities and related social constructs of identity, but I’ve really put that theme on ice because I can’t think of readings to assign that talk about those issues while also speaking explicitly to writing, being a writer, or language itself. While that isn’t strictly necessary, if we are going to focus on teaching content, then doesn’t the content need to directly address those issues?

On the other hand, I think Elbow is absolutely right when he says we should “use low stakes writing to fumble and fish for words for what they sense and intuit but cannot yet clearly say.” That’s an incredibly important process, and even if the students are phoning it in, they’ll understand the ideas they’re working with better than if they hadn’t done any writing. However, in spite of Elbow’s claim that low-stakes writing tends to be clearer than high-stakes writing, I was much more impressed with my students’ rough drafts of their first high-stakes assignment than with any of their low-stakes work, acknowledging that problems in their low-stakes work product may have resulted from issues with my own assignment design. At any rate, I’m looking forward to trying some ideas from Anson and Dannels’s list of highly intuitive and interesting low-stakes writing assignments.

I take Elbow’s points about criticism and responses to writing; we discussed this issue last week. It’s such a fine line, isn’t it? It’s always important to be kind, under any circumstance, but I made great strides in my college writing by sitting down with difficult professors and asking them to explain each of their comments. It was difficult, and I always had that first instinct to hold my nose, look at the grade, and never think about the paper again, but those professors’ comments had a huge impact on my writing and my confidence. Watching the steady decline of professorial ink on each subsequent essay was really satisfying and fruitful. If I were teaching anything other than Writing I, I’d feel great about letting writing issues slide if the content was there, but as it is, I’ll try to take Elbow’s advice on faith.


Low Stakes Writing: Victor

(Sorry I can’t be there this week!) I particularly enjoyed Tarvers’ discussion of literary criticism and its relation to outdated as well as relevant composition theories being taught in classrooms today. As this brief piece clearly shows, the “problem of language” has, as of the last century, been at the center of theoretical discussions; as such (and, honestly, it never had occurred to me to include something so “deep” or “theoretical” in a composition class) it seems only fair to introduce composition students to some of these issues. Tightly related to this discussion is this week’s topic of low stakes writing. Once again, I was very pleasantly surprised when I read these articles and reflected on the possible advantages of this kind of writing. I am with Tobin, who, at the end of her essay, tries to strike a balance between process-driven and product-driven methodologies. While I am a strong proponent of (gently) imposing a certain structure onto students (if anything, one against which they can react—in this way, the professor can sometimes become a sort of devil’s advocate and thus achieve the same kind of student involvement that pure process-oriented ideologies strive for), I also believe that allowing students the liberty to explore their ideas and the very nature of language through writing that they know will not be graded or judged can be extremely beneficial. Elbow makes an excellent point in commenting on the sometimes-illegible quality of high-stakes pieces of writing compared to the (if simpler) comprehensibility of low-stakes assignments: this, I believe, far from establishing the superiority of low-stakes assignments, points to the division of styles that is so crucial for an understanding of language and that students often have trouble understanding unless they see it in their own writing. As Anson et al point out, writing must also be exploratory, and as this week’s readings show, low-stakes writing is a splendid way of allowing students to explore.


Low/High Stakes Writing

In the Elbow one quote jumped out at me, and seemed very relevant for my students’ overall attitude towards writing: ” Writing feels like an inherently high stakes activity–especially because most people learn and use writing primarily in school, where it is virtually always evaluated, usually with a grade.” This is how virtually all of my students feel towards wriitng–it is always a high stakes mission. This is why mostly all of them hate writing or don’t see themselves as writers, they’ve admitted this past week to me. I’ve tried to offset this feeling with lots of low stakes assignments but, being the clever intellectuals they are, know that my eyes are still evaluating and assessing them based off that. I cannot deny that.

How, then, do we make writing feel low stakes? This does not necessarily mean that students are not being evaluated for their writing because, as much as we like it (and my students were the ones who made me aware of this), we are always being evaluated no matter how low or high the stakes a professor makes the situation to be. And, to be very honest, I am already gauging and assessing their writing just based on low stakes writing. However,  if writing is always a high stakes activity, or imagined as such, you either are perfect or not, successful or not, then isn’t this a disservice to our students? Am I too much of a hippy-carefree-freedomwriters professor where I want all my students to untangle and decompress themselves at every juncture in order to find a passion in writing?

This past week my students and I had an enriching discussion around what makes a writer and who gets to be called a writer. They have stated that none of them ever once considered being a writer (or a humanities major that matter) because there was no system in place which made them 100 percent guaranteed to know if they are good or not, like in math or business. For them, writing is always an act of high stakes risk, always an uncontrollable space where you will be scrutinized and picked apart, which is why none of them ever once considered themselves writers. I don’t know if that’s the kind of classroom environment and attitude I want my students to have but I don’t know how to break this.

I also found the section on feedback and comments extremely generative. I didn’t frequently wonder (even though it has and continues to happen to me) how my words can be misinterpreted or not understood at all. Definitely considering this for the first assignment, ensuring that I make as clear and straightforward as possible my words since frequently they can be rather abstract or unclear. I also want to aim to be supportive and encouraging of their writing through my feedback. Hopefully this will help make it feel less like criticism and an attack, like Elbow makes it to be, and more of I’m trying to help you along this path of development. So many things to continue pondering…


Victor’s Post!

A fundamental concept behind these week’s readings is that of motivation. Glenn and Goldthwaite speak of “alienation from research” and the duty that teachers have to make students come to the realization that we are all, in one way or another, researchers. We need only engage with a subject. It is with this engagement that the other readings pick up. The Meaningful Writing Project parts from the assumption that students will excel to the extent that the project they are working on is relevant to their lives. Sullivan, in fact, makes this the central argument of his essay, advocating for the importance of “intrinsic motivation.”


This discussion is fascinating, and it seems to me that behind each argument lies a much larger argument about what education should be. I agree with Sullivan about the need to shake things up in order to make English more interesting to students. But firstly, I think we must acknowledge that not all students can be equally invested in English studies (just as many of us, English students, are not particularly interested in math, another very valuable discipline). Thus, we cannot ignore the presence of temperamental tendencies.


Moreover, in Sullivan’s excessive championing of a creative approach to teaching English, I see the risk of conflating what the role of the artist and the role of the critic is. Drawing from my experience—as one inevitably must in these cases—I cannot but notice that it was in my composition and English classes that I learned to talk and write about texts, and it was in my creative writing classes that I had the opportunity to experiment with different, freer, modes of expression. Both equally valuable experiences; both possible responses to texts; but each its own discipline. The examples that Sullivan brings up in his paper are fascinating, of course, and they bring up new and exciting ways of grappling with texts (written or otherwise). I still believe that the expository, dialectical nature of essay writing makes it the clearest (though, granted, not always the most powerful) way to have these discussions. In the end, these are all things that students should be taught. We must only give each its due place in the curriculum.


Creative Non-Fiction Writing Assignment



I also modeled the first assignment for my class after Lisa’s first creative non-fiction assignment using the theme of community and language (which is the larger theme in our class). Before this assignment, the students have been working on low stakes responses to texts assigned for homework which I have to admit, they hate.

I think that the majority of the students in my class are finally excited about this assignment because instead of analyzing a text, they can be a bit more creative. In addition, they all do have amazing stories to tell about their identities and backgrounds and I hope this encourages them to investigate this through writing.  I will say that even after showing examples and going through the creative non-fiction texts we have read in class thus far, they are having some trouble understanding how they should weave personal narratives into piece that still has a “main idea” or purpose. They also, after briefly looking over some working drafts, are struggling to write with conviction. We have spent a great deal of time discussing how to do this but maybe I should alter my assignment in ways that will promote this conviction in their writing or perhaps scaffold the assignment in a way that would allow the students to figure out what possible topics would really interest them in writing.

In light of this realization, chapter 4 of the St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing is extremely helpful in that Glenn and Goldthwaite provide a number of ways to structure writing assignments that can help students figure out what to focus on in their own writing. I particularly liked the assignment that asks students to assess and define terms like analyze, explore, evaluate, entertain, describe.. etc. It honestly didn’t occur to me that they would be unfamiliar with these terms and it makes sense that if I am asking them to utilize these methods in their writing and they don’t fully know what it means it can be frustrating or confusing for them. This is definitely something I want to use to structure future writing assignments or rhetorical responses.




First Writing Assignment

My first writing assignment was going along with the idea of exploring difficult topics through writing. We have been talking a lot about structure and formal versus informal language, as well as music and its structure, in order to get into topics that might find better expression in writing as opposed to verbal discussion.


For their first assignment, the students had to focus on a moment in their lives that stood out to them for one of the three broad reasons below :

  1. It was a moment when you realized that you were different, but also a moment when you learned to accept what made you unique and finally felt comfortable with that uniqueness
  2. It was a transition moment, a time when you went from one period in your life to another
  3. You were in opposition to the world around you; something about your community- it could be your family, your hometown, your country- made you realize that maybe you didn’t quite fit into the mold you had been pressed into.


They then had to think of the “soundtrack” for that time and incorporate that soundtrack in any way- either by mimicking the “sound” of a particular song, borrowing some of the language, or even directly quoting the piece- as a way to make the writing more visceral. We have been talking a lot about engaging the reader and understanding that there are different audiences for each piece of writing, so this was a somewhat different way of going about getting into an essay.


They will also then have to write a reflection piece where they answer a series of questions to evaluate their effectiveness as a writer for that piece.



I guess the issue I may want to tackle is maybe it was too broad or even too narrow. I’m always trying to think of creative ways to engage the students, particularly because it’s such an early class, and I want them to try many different kinds of writing. This would be more of a personal essay sort of piece as opposed to anything too academic, which I felt was a good segway into the the critical essay.


For a discussion lead topic, I would like to try one of the following, with the first being my top choice:


    • Students’ Right to Their Own Language (and Identities)
    • Defining Writing Studies in the Twenty-first Century

First Writing Assignment & Discussion Topic

Quintana Narrative Essay Assignment Sheet

The first major assignment for my 2100 class is a narrative essay. The majority of my students are non-native speakers and have expressed great anxiety over composing a formal essay, so I wanted to provide them with a somewhat relaxed first assignment that would allow them to be creative and to write about a topic they are already well-acquainted with: themselves. My hope is that this assignment will foster their writing fluency, so to speak, and better prepare them for later assignments that involve more rigorous research and writing. Additionally, many of my students have been extremely reluctant to participate in class discussion, and it is my hope that in composing their narrative essay, these students will feel more confident in themselves as writers and therefore more comfortable speaking in class.
As for discussion topics, I am interested in presenting on “Students’ Right to Their Own Language (and Identities).” However, given the primacy that this issue has held in my class so far, I would also be interested in presenting on active student participation in the classroom.