How Talk Transforms

As part of my “New Directions in Writing Center Scholarship” inquiry group, which I shared with Joey and Priya for the Spring 2017 semester, I researched the method of applied Conversation Analysis (CA) and how it has been used to study “what goes on” in writing center sessions. As I read more about what can be learned from closely attending to the conversations that consultants have with students—whether or not those conversations directly relate to writing—I became interested in informally testing this method. I’d like to discuss one particular article here that takes up applied CA: Beth Godbee’s “Toward Explaining the Transformative Power of Talk about, around and for Writing.” Godbee’s engagement with applied CA as a method proved useful as I observed and reflected on one of my own sessions.

Godbee begins from the premise that talking is essential to the transformation that occurs in writing center sessions. But she wants to know: how does talk between a consultant and a student enact this transformation? How do conversational elements like facial expressions, body language, and the sharing of personal information lead to a verifiable (positive) change toward greater empowerment for both student and consultant? By studying recorded and filmed conversations using applied CA methods, Godbee aims to understand which specific moments in writing consultations led to transformation. She describes applied CA as “both a theory of language and a methodological approach for explaining the social, structural, and sequential nature of talk-in-interaction” (175). Her article focuses on the latter definition of the applied CA approach.

Godbee articulates three types of (empowering) transformation that occur in writing center sessions, which she found “suggested in the literature”:

  1. “raising critical consciousness”
  2. “building affiliative relationships”
  3. “redistributing power relationships” (177)

The second type of transformation, according to Godbee, allows the other two to occur. I was interested in this because I have experienced those exact shifts in my consultations but had never seen them spelled out so clearly.

Godbee also observes that writing center consultations are widely perceived in university contexts as “good” events; “because [this good] is often assumed, it is rarely explained,” she notes. This unexamined idea of “goodness” elides a whole host of problems (such as the realities of institutional racism that are alive and well in universities). She proposes that by studying how good consultations function (if indeed they are good), we might also begin to think about why they are good.

With the three types of transformation that Godbee lays out in mind, I was able to observe and reflect on a particular writing center session that I found empowering for both the writer and myself. This session happened toward the end of the semester, when many students were in a fevered rush. The writing center had a charged, urgent energy that day. A student—I’ll call her Rasha—came in to work on a PowerPoint presentation she was giving as a final project for her Communications class. Right away, I noticed elements of my conversation with Rasha—such as humor, “troubles telling,” and a willingness on her part to critique the power structures of our “university-sanctioned space”—that Godbee had analyzed in her article.

Rasha’s presentation was about the staggering number of suicides committed by farmers in India who have grown cotton seeds from Monsanto. The company claims the seeds are pest-resistant, but pests can only be prevented with costly pesticides, also sold by Monsanto. Rasha’s presentation described a vicious cycle wherein farmers’ crops fail as they accrue tremendous debt to the Monsanto corporation, and then commit suicide because they see no other way out of their predicament. Rasha identified herself as Indian-American; at the start of our conversation, she declared her personal investment in her presentation, as she has family in India affected by this issue. I shared my own passion for social, economic and ecological justice, and we bonded over an appreciation for Vandana Shiva, the activist and author. This initial exchange, which was not directly related to Rasha’s writing, established the “affiliative relationship” that Godbee identifies as the ground for empowering transformation.

As the session proceeded, its ostensible purpose proved to be straightforward: Rasha needed to edit her slides for grammatical correctness and narrative flow. I asked questions and offered suggestions about sentence mechanics. Because Rasha was much more of an authority on her topic, though, the power dynamic between us shifted constructively and beautifully: she explained to me how her research fit together, and she commented that explaining it to me was useful practice for her actual presentation. As we moved through her slides, we paused to discuss the differing voices present in her work (for example, Monsanto’s statement on their website, denying any responsibility for the over 300,000 suicides committed by farmers who were growing Monsanto crops). These elements of our conversation definitely constituted a raising of critical consciousness.

As we talked, I could sense a widening of our critical aperture, a mutual recognition that this conversation wasn’t just about a PowerPoint presentation, but about our own intellectual relationships to corporate power. This transformation would not have happened had we not departed from the script of solely working on writing.

I wholeheartedly agree with Godbee’s claim, quoting Stubbe et. al (358), that conversations not only refer to the world, but also constitute and construct it (Godbee 175). The “ethic of care”—citing Nel Noddings’ phrase (194)—that can play out in conversations with students, whether they be about comma usage or global capitalism, is an essential element of the transformative work we do as consultants.

 

 


Image: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Three Women Conversing (Unterhaltung von drei Frauen) (1907)

Works Cited

 Godbee, Beth. “Toward Explaining the Transformative Power of Talk about, around, and for Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 47, Nov. 2012, pp. 171-197.

Noddings, Nel. Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral education. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984.

Stubbe, Maria, C. Lane, J. Hilder, E. Vine, B. Vine, M. Marra, and A. Weatherall. “Multiple discourse analyses of a workplace interaction.” Discourse Studies, vol. 5, 2003, pp. 351-388.

 

Great Resources: Professional Writing & Presentations

Many student writers might agree that cover letters, personal statements, and resumes are some of the most difficult texts to write. Although the word count of these documents is fairly low, the stakes are often very high, as is the level of tedium and detail required to write a polished one.

Added to these high stakes are students’ lack of familiarity with the overlap between professional and personal writing. Students might have difficulty approaching the content if they are unaccustomed to writing about themselves and their own experiences. Professional writing is often an unfamiliar discipline for them, and anyone who hasn’t worked as an admissions officer or manager/administrator probably hasn’t encountered many models and samples of effective cover letters/admissions letters. Further, “rules” about writing that students may have picked up along their careers as student writers—such as “avoid using the first person” and “avoid repeating the same phrase on the same page”—often do not apply to creating job-seeking documents. Surprisingly, the opposite is also true: students are often reluctant to transfer knowledge about other types of communicative writing to professional writing. For example, they might assume that only a text-based literary research paper needs a thesis statement, but the first paragraph of a cover letter also needs a main, evidence-based claim. They might also believe that professional writing necessitates a terse, detached tone devoid of personality—while, conversely, we encourage students to write about their experience and qualities with enthusiasm.

At the Writing Center, we’ve gathered numerous excellent resources to help writers disentangle these notions about writing with a specific purpose and for a specific audience. These resources assist writers with cover letters, graduate school and grant applications, jobs, internships, fellowships, and more. In fact, they can help students improve their written communication skills in many ways; we have included many resources that provide specific textual models and sample phrasings. These guides go beyond the typical “Do’s and Don’ts” of professional writing, which are sometimes not so helpful: it is easy enough to state, “Write about your past work experience” but what that actually looks like can be a mystery for writers new to the genre.

 

To get started:

To alleviate any anxiety or confusion about the different types of written correspondence a job seeker might need to write, Yale provides a simple breakdown of the different Types of Correspondence.

This resource from Chapel Hill describes clearly and plainly the differences between Resumes vs. CVs. using a helpful bulleted list of what each document typically contains.

 

Writing the resume and/or CV:

Boston College’s “Action Verbs List” is a favorite of mine, because it saves the writer the need to consult a thesaurus in order to avoid repetitive statements. I print this out and hand it to the student during nearly every resume- and CV- focused consultation, and students are extremely grateful to see not only the wide variety of both common and less common action verbs, but also that the list is broken down into specific skill sets. Under “Management skills” one sees directed, oversaw, supervised, while the verbs created, fashioned, integrated fall under “Creative skills.” This list allows students to view the subtle differences between skill sets and to think critically about where their strengths lie.

Relatedly, Purdue Owl’s Job Skills Checklist puts verbs and nouns together, suggesting new phrasing for describing past experience. I find this resource particularly helpful during my sessions because students often ask how they can “sound professional” and tailor their past work experience, especially if they have not had much, to the demands of the new position. For example, the checklist suggests two statements that could apply to many situations: developing a climate of enthusiasm, teamwork, and cooperation and providing customers with service. Either of these statements can be used as a jumping-off point for a student to further fill in some details about their work. It serves as a useful brainstorming tool for resume and CV writers.

 

For the application itself:

Our own Sentence Structures Used in Cover Letters document provides students with textual models to borrow, modify, and incorporate in the paragraphs of their cover letter and/or personal statement. This document is used in our Cover Letter workshop where we emphasize that cover letters are texts that entail specific readerly expectations. The reader of a cover letter will expect an introduction detailing which position the writer is applying for, an overall argument for why the candidate is the best one for the position, to be thanked, and so forth. Therefore, these model sentence structures are listed as answers to common questions about cover letter content: “How do I introduce myself?” and “How can I introduce my unique background?” for example.

Also from the aforementioned workshop, our own Cover Letter is very useful as a model and a guide. What is especially helpful is the series of arrows to the right of the model letter that state the purpose of each sentence in the document. Knowing the purpose of each statement and being able to justify its content and its reason for existing are two essential academic writing skills that are transferrable to any type of argumentative writing. In fact, I have pointed students toward this exercise in consultations that had nothing to do with cover letters to demonstrate that, just as each sentence in a cover letter has a purpose (“to introduce myself” “to reiterate interest in the position”), in an essay about, say, King Lear, the same rule applies. A student should be able to clearly see “this sentence contextualizes the scene of the play that I am analyzing” or “this topic sentence refers back to my initial claim and provides more detail about it” or what not.

Finally, University of Toronto’s Types of Admission Letters can help students identify the style of letter that they wish to write (or are actually writing). The organization of an admission letter is often the trickiest part of writing one. This resource allows students to think a bit more deeply about what type of letter they wish to write: narrative? Analytical?

Writing as Communication with Purpose

When students are demonstrably confused by the notion of a thesis-driven essay, one of my favorite things to do has been to show them how the structure of the essay reflects the way we communicate naturally. My goal is to help them view writing as just one way to communicate ideas. The purpose of writing is not simply to write, I sometimes remind students. The purpose is to say something. The writing is just the medium. In this way, rather than viewing structure as random guidelines specific to their paper, they can see the structure of their papers in the big picture: as purposeful and goal-oriented, and a useful method of communication.

One way I have found to be successful is to illustrate the correlation between the structure of an everyday conversation and the structure of their essay, by asking students to tell me about a movie they’ve seen recently.

I might say, Oh, I haven’t heard of that movie. What is it? The student usually says something like, It’s a movie about a kid who finds out he’s a wizard and gets accepted to a special school for child witches and wizards. That’s the introduction: some background and summary that can provide context for me to understand what you want to tell me.

I’ll then ask the student: Was it a well-made movie or not? The student might say, Yes, it was well made. That’s the thesis: your analysis of the movie based on your observations.

Well, what if I disagree? I ask them: Can you explain to me why you believe it was well made, even though we both saw the same movie? What are three elements of the movie that led to your conclusion? Usually the student comes up with something like this:

  • The actors are skilled and convincing.
  • The soundtrack is well written.
  • The special effects were exciting.

These are topic sentences: the subclaims for your paragraphs.

By illustrating that ultimately, the purpose of writing is communication and the goal is to explain something to a reader, we can help the student see for herself what strategies and methods lend themselves to that purpose. Reflecting on the types of communication that students use in their everyday life can help draw out those methods: analysis and argument, and support and evidence.

I sometimes worry that this approach risks coming across as condescending, by oversimplifying the complex task of developing a thesis and creating an evidence-based structure to support it. It’s not always this easy, I know.

But I believe that through this very simplified example, students have the opportunity to focus on the purpose of structure and why it works, rather than to view it as an arbitrary set of rules to blindly follow, divorced from purpose and utility. And ultimately, this understanding empowers them to use clear, articulate writing as a tool for their own communicative goals.

 

image from  http://baltimoresportsandlife.com

Productive and Unfinished Sessions

In one of my last sessions at the Writing Center before spring break, I worked with a student who needed to revise an English essay. His professor had met with him that afternoon and offered comments, the gist of which was that the student needed to clarify his thesis and improve the structure of his argument. The professor’s ideas were very much in line with what I would have suggested. The student still needed further explanation, as well as some practical suggestions and moral support. It was a session in which I asked a lot of questions and took notes; I then reflected what I had written back to the student so he could hear his own insights articulated a bit differently. Quite a bit was left undone at the end of the session, but we had had drafted a new thesis statement and hashed out a few potential topic sentences.

The week after spring break, the same student returned for a second appointment. In the interim, he had typed up the sentences we had worked on and incorporated them into the paper, but hadn’t had time to do much else. After looking over his paper to jog my memory, I suggested we work on the argument and topic sentences. He said, “But we already did that.” When I told him I thought that, despite the work we’d done, there was still work to do and that it might even involve revising those same sentences further, he was noticeably surprised. I told him, “I’m in a similar position with something I’ve been working on. Believe me, I understand.”

This was true. I had spent much of the break revising an article I had expected to finish on the first day. The task had taken me so long that I missed the deadline I had long been aiming for, and I submitted it a day late with my fingers crossed. It was frustrating how much I had underestimated the time that would be required to address something that just wasn’t working in the framing and structure of my argument.

Our second session was similar to the first, in that it felt productive and it felt unfinished. After he left, I thought about how often I’ve witnessed students at those moments when they realize just how much work writing is. I’ve watched the same students have that realization multiple times. And as a writer, I repeatedly experience it. Particularly now, as educational and professional rubrics focus on distinct marketable “skills” and clear benchmarks of achievement, the goal of learning is equated with acquiring mastery and efficiency. However, even after decades of devoting a lot of time to writing in different forms, I’ve only become “more efficient” at things like identifying when I’m falling into a habit or noticing more quickly when something I thought was really great really isn’t. For me, all this experience hasn’t led to fewer drafts or less struggle or consistently better work. Rather than mastery and efficiency, what it has given me is discipline, resolve and some faith in the process.

I wouldn’t necessarily tell a student all that, as it could make writing seem more daunting. But I would like to find a better way to shift students’ expectations and convey just how circular this path of learning can be.

 

Who Gets to have Ethos?: Reimagining Identity and Authority

Many rhetoric and composition instructors, including myself, employ the “Burkean Parlor” as a metaphor for students engaging in an ongoing intellectual conversation. The metaphor advises that, upon entering the parlor, “you listen for a while…then you put in your oar” (Burke 110-111). We might read this metaphor as a call for establishing credibility, or ethos, before contributing ideas in an academic context.

The Burkean parlor metaphor, when applied to student writers, neglects social reality by assuming that writers gain authority simply by demonstrating their engagement with other scholars. But not everyone is invited into the “parlors” of influence; in fact, many groups have been historically and systematically shut out of them.

This raises the question of whether ethos, the classic Aristotelian mode of persuasion associated with the speaker’s credibility, applies to the speaker as expressed in the writing or speech act, or about the essential character and identity of the speaker? They cannot be fully separated. We naturally assume that writers express their values and worldview through their writing. Furthermore, writing reflects the contexts of education, fluency with language, and level of familiarity with a field. Writers constantly reveal their subject positions, from the most explicit genres of memoir and personal essay to findings published in medical journals.

So what happens when a student writer has a crisis of ethos—whether because she is a first year student, or because of her subject position (as a woman, person of color, nonnative English speaker, and/or lower/working class student)? I argue for finding ways to encourage student writers to mobilize their identities. Rather than impeding one’s authority, articulating one’s subject position can liberate students to both thrive in and influence the development of academic spaces.

Many first year students experience imposter syndrome at institutions of higher education. In Laura Saltz and Nancy Sommers’ “The Novice as Expert,” they discuss how this feeling manifests in student writing. Student writers doubt their authority to make claims, resulting in a tendency to describe and summarize rather than analyze or synthesize. According to their study of undergraduate student writers at Harvard, students who “initially accept their status as novice” and see the goal of writing as going beyond fulfilling assignments see the greatest gains in their writing. Since they are experts on their own experience, they can articulate, assess and adjust their own ideas as they come across and engage with sources and classmates.

But there are other challenges to establishing authority through writing besides being a first year student. These especially affect writers from identity positions not historically considered authoritative. In “Black Women Writers and the Trouble with Ethos,” Coretta Pittman reminds us that moral character was key to Artistotle’s definition of ethos—the idea that a good speaker needs to convince his readers that he has “good sense, good moral character, and good will” (qtd. in Pittman 44). But, as Pittman argues, not all citizens can be judged by the same standard of moral character. In the American context, black women’s narratives like Harriet Jacobs’ slave narrative indicate an “alternative form of virtue and morality”—“a negative ethos” remade into a positive one—predicated on “difference, strength, resilience, wittiness, astuteness, toughness, fortitude, and street smarts” (Pittman 51).

This speaks to Nedra Reynolds’ idea that ethos is more about the community’s character than the individual’s. Ethos is contextual and place-driven: Reynolds notes that other translations of the word include “An accustomed place,” “the abodes of men,” and “a habitual gathering place.” Or, as Michael Halloran says, “To have ethos is to manifest the virtues most valued by the culture to and for which one speaks” (qtd. in Reynolds 328). These values are often gendered; Reynolds explains that “when the knower is located as female in this culture, knowledge is experienced, constructed, and recalled in nonhierarchical, nonlinear, and nonobjective forms”(330). Reynolds then asks how we can create an “ethos from the margins.”

I love the idea of an “ethos from the margins,” not least because I’m professionally and personally invested in empowering those who lack power in society and, as a result, in rhetorical situations. But Reynolds doesn’t answer her own question. I want to suggest that an ethos from the margins means more than women accepting the ethos traditionally attributed to men—objective, hierarchical, linear—but also assessing the value of more “feminine” modes of expression: subjective, digressive. Like Pittman suggests, writers can construct an alternative form of virtue and morality. These constructions, in turn, influence the audience member to reconsider her understanding of authority.

I speak both as a consultant and teacher from an identity position of a twenty-eight year old woman of color from a working-class background, not a position traditionally considered authoritative. I work with many students whose positions are not—many of whom might both experience the alienation of identity and of being a “novice,” in the “sometimes painfully confusing states of their emerging authority as speakers and writers” (Reynolds 335).

So how do we use these theories to guide our work with students? I believe it is through a revised notion of authority, where identity and experience matter. Schmertz advocates a “pragmatics of naming—a self-conscious use of ethos—as a political tactic: a naming of ourselves and others that acknowledges the essences that naming creates and attempts to be aware of both the possibilities and limitations entailed in that naming”(88). This “self-conscious use of ethos” allows us to acknowledge and challenge the ways in which authority has historically been constructed.

In my own teaching and consulting, I welcome personal engagement with the material and task: I try to ask how they like the class and how they’re doing in it; what interests students in a given topic; and where their knowledge on the topic comes from. This invites students to articulate their relationship to the piece of writing: How much does this topic matter to them? What do they really think about the issue? Where does that way of thinking originate? I look for opportunities to note their own thoughts, and to demonstrate how they’re already responding to ideas in the field. The more a student can imagine that their writing will have real influence and impact on their emerging authority, the more likely it actually will. Looking at the bigger picture of their academic careers and choosing topics that engage the writer’s intellectual curiosity will help them build their ethos over time.

When a writer can articulate her relationship to the material, she might begin assessing opportunities to introduce this into her writing, based on the rhetorical situation. Writing teachers and writing center consultants, as experts on reading a rhetorical situation, and as varied experts in a range of disciplines and fields, can help guide this assessment. Where can the writer fairly represent an idea through paraphrase rather than quoting it? Where can the writer contribute analysis and synthesis? Is there space for the writer to use the first person? These strategies can be useful for everything from a case study to a personal statement.

As consultants, we also might learn to reveal and mobilize our own subject positions and expertise in our work with students—to present and assess how they have formed our ideas about reading and writing. In the particular rhetorical situation of the consultation or the classroom, we are the ones vested with authority. Allowing ourselves to recognize the authority each student carries with her not only empowers her to own her ethos, but also enhances our own.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941.

Pittman, Coretta. “Black Women Writers and the Trouble with Ethos: Harriet Jacobs, Billie Holiday, and Sister Souljah.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 1, 2007, pp. 43–7., www.jstor.org/stable/40232512.

Reynolds, Nedra. “Ethos as Location: New Sites for Understanding Discursive Authority.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 11, no. 2, 1993, pp. 325–338, www.jstor.org/stable/465805.

Schmertz, Johanna. “Constructing Essences: Ethos and the Postmodern Subject of Feminism.” Rhetoric Review Vol. 18, No. 1 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 82-91, http://www.jstor.org/stable/466091.

Sommers, Nancy, and Laura Saltz. “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 56, no. 1, 2004, pp. 124–149, www.jstor.org/stable/4140684.

The Reverse Commute: From Article to Conference Paper

Academic conferences in the field of humanities are useful venues for sharing and circulating new ideas and testing out new concepts. Normally, scholars submit an abstract based on their current research, type up a 10-12 page essay to read to the audience in a 20-minute presentation, and then hope to incite discussion and gain feedback on their ideas. We are taught that conference presentations have value in that they ideally result in articles that you then submit for publication in high-quality peer-reviewed journals and volumes. Turning a conference paper into an article is a step-by-step process which involves understanding your readership— that is, by selecting the specific journal most likely to be interested in your argument and in which a conversation about your research question(s) exists. This is even more critical if the essay will appear in an edited volume or special themed issue of a journal, where the editors will most likely have specific expectations about audience, organization, and methodology.

Recently, I was invited to submit an article to a special issue of a journal— and it just so happened that I was working on a presentation for the same research project after having submitted an abstract a semester earlier to the regional conference in my field. Yet, instead of presenting first and writing a longer article later, I did the reverse. I needed to submit the article sooner, so I was already writing a 20-page article draft, but needed to condense, cut, and rework it into a 15-20 minute oral presentation. Although condensing seems easier than expanding — after all, cutting is easier than writing new material, it would seem — I found myself struggling with a process that was the reverse of what I was accustomed to doing.

I began to think about FOMO [fear of missing out]: the fear that my unknown audience of conference attendees will be missing out on some crucial ideas or language that the readers of my draft benefitted from reading.

The idea of FOMO can help writers with the process of condensing a longer piece of writing into a shorter one. First, in order to lessen your fears of leaving something out, it helps to clarify audience expectations. Am I writing for a wide audience? How familiar with my texts is my audience likely to be? In my case, since the panel was about a narrow topic, I figured that most attendees would have at least some familiarity with my topic, but not necessarily with my sources. Therefore, rather than include analyses from sources that I would need to extensively contextualize, and which would be difficult to understand if I dispensed with biographical and contextual information, I decided to go with the more familiar of the sources. This left room to perform deeper and more thorough close readings in the time allotted.

Secondly, I found the practice of reverse outlining to be extremely useful for condensing and reworking a long draft into a short paper. After a second reading of my article draft, I pared down the various threads of inquiry, eliminated the many and diverse citations and references, and shrunk the argument down. I focused primarily on clarity. In fact, it was helpful to go back to my original abstract, where I had outlined the overall scholarly conversation into which I hoped to enter, the main claim I was making, the texts I was using for my close readings, and finally, the contribution my essay was making to the burning questions in the field. What is an abstract if not a condensed article in itself?

In sum, I found that writing a conference paper based on a completed article draft actually helped my article: I saw my argument, however pared down in a new light. I still had some fear that my session attendees would miss out on a significant idea or point, but… that is what the question and answer period is for. :)

 

image from justfreightjobs.co.uk 

Outlining Strategies and Pre-Writing Goals

I have heard many writers say that they don’t outline. Maybe they don’t like it, they find the structure limiting, or feel they don’t need it. To me, outlining is the equivalent of zooming out on a map. I really need the visual of the big picture to understand where I am and to maintain perspective. Outlines help me stay focused on the thesis and its sub claims, and help me avoid feeling overwhelmed and lost in a sea of body paragraphs. My outlines are long and involved, often with references and rough topic “phrases” (because my outlines rarely include complete sentences).

In the classroom, I have required students to submit a brief outline with their project proposal, so that I know the student is on the right track before getting started. In the Writing Center, I often wrap up brainstorming sessions with a rough outline so that students have a plan before they head out. How can we help students stay focused on the big picture and avoid getting lost without suggesting they build a typical outline? Here are three alternatives to outlining I’ve heard, and their pros and cons for students who are adverse to outlines.

Branching is one way to represent the connections between ideas on a page. This strategy places the central idea or thesis in the middle, and shows related ideas as branches extending from it. The benefits of this approach are that it’s not linear, so it avoids the sequential structure that some find unappealing. The drawbacks are that it doesn’t reflect the form of a paper, which does have to assume some linear structure in the ordering of paragraphs, and it isn’t really conducive to typing, so students must use a pen and paper. I see branching as a really useful strategy, but afterwards, students still must plan: they must determine how that more abstract representation will translate to paragraphs on the page.

Freewriting is sometimes considered an alternative to outlining because it is, like an outline, an outlet to “dump” ideas onto the page. Writing can feel limiting and stressful, in an effort to be at once clear, concise, and accurate. Freewriting frees the writer from these priorities for the moment, and allows the ideas to be the focus. Still, after freewriting, the student must move on to the next step: planning. Freewriting does not offer an organization, and thus doesn’t really provide the student with a clear view of what the paper will be. So, like branching, freewriting is a great way to brainstorm, but still leaves steps that the student must take before she is ready to write.

The Question Outline is one that I sometimes use myself. It’s not really an alternative to outlining, but it’s a type of outline that may appeal to some outlining naysayers. In a question outline, the structure doesn’t have claims or evidence, but rather questions that the student still needs answers to. One benefit of this strategy is that it can be formulated before the student has really begun to research or analyze. So for students who don’t feel “ready” to outline, the Question Outline might work. Developing a question outline can help the student see what research or evidence is still needed. Once the answers have been found, he needs only to take the additional step of updating the outline with these answers. As a result of the research and analysis, there may be rearranging and reorganizing to do, but the visual remains.

Not all writers are interested in outlining, but all writers need some pre-writing. Maybe some writers can see the overall structure of their paper without writing it down on the page, but for those of us who can’t, it seems that outlining can be modified, but not replaced.

#Draftgoals: Supporting Writers by Reading Less

I’m increasingly coming to feel that if a writer really needs to radically revise and is having trouble separating their old ideas/phrasing (and attendant frustration) from their potential new direction, their draft is actually a bad place to start. In one-on-one sessions where the writer and I are both present, for me to spend time looking closely at the draft in order to offer “feedback” is not only an inefficient road to revision—it’s actively doing the writer a disservice.

Initially, I began de-prioritizing draft reading as part of a broader effort to ensure I didn’t consciously or unconsciously assume control over a writer’s work, an awareness that also included practices like reading together while deliberately keeping the paper on the table between us and not writing on it without first asking permission. As my consulting practice began to focus more and more on the writer, the more it made sense to devote time to fully understanding her desires and ideas for her work by talking them through, beyond what she may have been able to achieve on the page.

Then I tried an experiment that forever convinced me that de-emphasizing a draft can lead to deeper, more radical revision: I offered my comp class a choice between meeting with me for a WC-style session or receiving written feedback on a draft (they’d each get the other option later, with a chance to revise in between). The difference in the depth of revision between the people who chose to meet with me first and those who chose written feedback was so dramatic I felt it was unethical to offer it as a choice ever again—in future semesters, I always met with students first, only lightly reading their drafts in advance. The phenomenon held—I continued to see drastic revisions on a scale I had never seen among writers at the same stage when I offered more detailed draft feedback.

In the WC where I am encountering a writer’s work and ideas in isolation, without a past or future encounter, I’ve found this approach equally effective and conducive to revision.

Here’s why I think it works:

By spending a good amount of time talking through the project before I’ve even read anything, the writer and I are both starting work from the best, purest, most ideal version of their essay—or even developing or discovering it together. This helps them get re-excited about their sources and ideas, away from the draft’s vexing sentences, but even more importantly—it helps me become expert, not in the current, flawed draft, but in the #goals version. Then, when I do read the draft—or whatever part of it the reader needs me to—I’m measuring it against the writer’s own vision for it, not against the potentially-flawed impression I got from the draft itself. Understanding the best-articulated version of their idea also allows me to help them make decisions about clarity, cuts, inclusions, etc., with a lot of confidence.

And it has to be said: aside from philosophical or pedagogical benefits, the real reason I continue this approach is strictly practical—it’s extremely effective for the writer and much less exhausting for me since I’m spending my energy listening, responding and suggesting, instead of quickly mastering and diagnosing someone else’s argument based only on a flawed document.

In WC practice, this approach means:

  • always asking a writer how much time they have before the draft is due and how open they are to radical revision. I also subtly try to get a read of how motivated they might be and much mental energy they have for rethinking this project; the more time/mental energy/motivation for revision a writer demonstrates, the less emphasis I put on the existing draft. This is triply true when a writer expresses frustration or exhaustion with the current draft.
  • after determining that revision is our biggest priority, asking the writer to put the draft aside and explain her most important ideas (thesis, main points) to me while I take notes. This is basically an informal, verbal kind of reverse outline. I usually try to capture the writer’s explanation of her idea as close to verbatim as possible so that if it’s an improvement or clarification on the current wording, we can insert it directly into the revision.
  • only moving to look at the actual draft once we have determined that the specific sentences/articulation of ideas in that draft will be useful to our discussion/planning, and/or when the writer is ready for me to help her figure out how material in the existing draft can be reworked or cut-and-pasted into her improved, revised line of argument.  This emphasis on the new, spoken/noted revision plan usually means I rarely look at a draft in the first 10 minutes of a session and very often means that I never read the entire draft at all.

In short, a consultant’s willingness to put aside the need to assert expertise—instead stepping back to the level of ideas and working from a place of discovery and excitement—allows the writer to do the same.

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