Much of the teaching that I do takes place in writing and writing-intensive classes. As much as I am able, I try to structure the assignments in those classes to promote writing as a process, working through cycles of drafting and revision in the hopes that students will benefit from time and attention paid to their work. (The Student’s Own Question assignment for the Spring 2016 Composition II class at Oklahoma State University–working through prewriting, a peer-review version, two instructor–review versions, and a final version–serves as one example.) Because I try to model the behavior I like to see from my students (as exemplified by the sample assignment responses I post), it makes sense to me that I would do something to explicate my own writing processes. Hence the discussion that follows, which works through a treatment of how I set up my writing situation before it looks at my drafting and revision processes. A few concluding comments follow afterward.
One common piece of advice given to writers is that they should find the circumstances most conducive to their compositional processes and produce them as much as they can when they make to write. It is not always feasible to do so, of course, but it is eminently desirable. When I sit down to write, I prefer to do so with a cup of coffee and music playing. The former is usually provided either by the office in which I work or by a helpful home pot; the latter typically comes from a streaming radio service to which I subscribe and which I have calibrated through long trial and error to give me the kind of music that works well for me. Others’ preferences will vary, and many are discussed in CCC 66.1 and 66.2, but this discussion treats my writing processes; the circumstances described are those I prefer.
Another part of my preferred setup is that it facilitates access to materials. I have written elsewhere about surrounding myself with scholarly apparatus; it is a habit I have not abandoned, despite the mixed valence of that surrounding as a symbol. I subscribe to a number of scholarly journals, and I make no small number of notes in the texts and margins thereof. Having access to them helps me to carry out many of the writing tasks that I do as a matter of course. Also, I still page through printed texts more quickly than I can scroll through electronic ones–and because I do not always remember the exact wording I seek, skimming the texts helps me to find the ideas I need to pull into my work. When I can, I set up my writing situation such that it allows me easy access to those materials; they may not be in arm’s reach, but I try to have them no more than a few steps away from me.
Much of the writing that I do is done in response to a call for papers, a freelance order, or an assignment such as I give to my students. This means that, in most cases, I am addressing a specific prompt, enacting in my professional and academic work much the same kind of thing that I ask my students to do. I am also generally provided with some idea of the writing that needs to be done, which soon leads me to the kind of idea I will pursue. Knowing what kind of idea usually gives me some indication of the structure I need to use to support the idea, and so I will generally set up the kind of writing I need to do by stubbing out sections. Sometimes, as in the composition of this piece or the summaries and commentaries I draft for freelance orders, those sections will take formal headings; how I handled doing so in the former appears below:
Other writing tasks may not offer the kind of clear idea that allows for a formal outline, or they may not be of the sort that admits of formal section headings. In such cases, I still stub out the basic shape of my paper, usually using phrasing placed into square brackets as informal guideposts for how to move through what I write. Having such a structure in place helps me get through the paper, both in giving me direction and in giving me convenient breaking-points if I need to use them.
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Once I have set up my writing situation as best as I am able, including generating the basic idea and stubbing out the structure of the piece, I sit down to write. I rarely compose in a linear fashion; while I typically draft an introduction in at least a working version when I set up my materials, I do not typically move through the first identified section into the second and on through the document. Instead, I jump around, moving from identified section to identified section as ideas come to me. For example, in this very piece, I moved from what is now the first paragraph of the Setup section to drafting this paragraph; the idea for it came to me at that point, and I made sure to set it down on the electronic page before I forgot it. In my freelance summaries and commentaries on popular works, I will usually draft front and back matter before moving through the summaries that occupy the middle of the ordered texts, moving back and forth among points in both. Again, it is a process that works for me and that has emerged across thousands of hours of writing. Others’ results may vary, but I seek in this piece to explicate my own processes.
I confess that I am often distracted in my drafting. The writing I do at home finds itself set aside in favor of family and household concerns; that I do at the office sees (usually welcome) interruptions by colleagues and others. Both sets of distractions do present threats to my compositional process; it is easy to get involved in other things than writing, even that writing done explicitly for pay. And my disordered compositional process is prone to the distraction, as well; returning from interruptions does not always come with a clear indication of what I was doing or where I was going with the paper. Even with such problems, however, I find that my process works reasonably well for me; I am able to get done the writing I need to get done, and in such a way that my freelance clients consistently rate my writing as excellent; my academic endeavors are reasonably successful, as well.
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I work from an idea of writing as a recusrive process, following training I received as a graduate student in English. This means that not only does my drafting not proceed in a necessarily linear fashion, but also my process of adjusting and correcting the writing proceeds in an other-than-lockstep pattern. At the sentence level, I correct and adjust wording continuously as I move through the writing (something that electronic writing facilitates much better than manuscript, which is one argument in favor of it). It happens frequently, almost with every sentence that I write, and it goes beyond correcting my occasional typographical error to rethinking wording and phrasing as I go about placing ideas on the page.
At the structural level, I find that I sometimes reconsider not only my formal headings but how I will move into and through each. For example, when I initially set up this piece, I had thought I would do a simple three-heading structure. As I have moved forward with it, I have added a formal fourth heading (for the conclusion, below), as well as aligning with prevailing online compositional practice and embedding links into the document to help navigate it. I had not initially thought to include them, but the piece has grown somewhat larger than I had first expected, and adjusting the composition to ease the reader’s burden seems a thing worth doing.
In addition, I realized that I needed to include information about my broader setup practices. Initially, I had thought to begin the Setup section with the paragraph starting “Much of the writing,”but further consideration prompted me to adjust the idea. Similar things often happen while I am amid my writing, and so I make similar revisions, inserting new materials into places that seem to need them. It usually works out well for me, helping me to address my readers more usefully, whether in clarifying materials for my students, satisfying my clients, or explicating materials more fully for fellow scholars.
That I do revise amid composition does not mean I do not revise after generating what I think is an acceptable initial draft; I certainly do so. Often, I do so by printing out a physical copy of the document I am drafting, reviewing in print what I see thereupon. Changes I note to myself as needing to be made are incorporated from the end of the document back; doing so makes it easier for me to find the places in the earlier version of the document I note as needing alteration. I also have at least one other reader look at what I write, usually another person with degrees in English but whose area of expertise is other than mine. Doing so allows me not only to have my basic argumentative or iterative form examined, but also the clarity of my writing–if I am writing clearly enough that a non-specialist can easily understand what I am trying to convey, then I am writing well, indeed.
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There is doubtlessly more I could say about my writing process. The variations of it I deploy to meet specific writing tasks could each be given a section or a whole post to itself, and even for the things I have discussed, there are more details that I could include. What I hope to have given is a useful summary view of my writing process, one that will perhaps be of benefit to my students now and in times to come.
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Edited on 21 March 2016 to account for vanished media.