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Exploring the Writing Process

Dana Murphy

One of the many great instructional practices to come out of the writing workshop movement is the idea of teaching the writing process. We have tried to demystify the writing process by teaching kids that good writing doesn’t just happen. It is not magic. It comes from envisioning and drafting and many hours of revision and editing and sharing and feedback and hard work. There is a process, we tell them. But is there? A process? One?

I remember when the workshop structure was just being introduced to the world at large. To keep things organized, some teachers instituted a policy where everybody did their prewriting on Monday, drafting on Tuesday, revising on Wednesday . . . You get the idea. Publishing happened on Friday, and the whole thing started over on Monday. (I wonder what happened when we had Monday off for a national holiday. No prewriting that week?) The particularly savvy teachers allowed their students a bit more freedom, and some teachers even had color-coded cups to keep track of where each student was in the writing process.  Students could move their Popsicle stick to the yellow cup when they were ready to revise and to the purple cup when they were editing. These teachers, I thought, were really honoring the individuality of the writers in their room. They were allowing freedom and choice, just like we allow writers in the real world. This is, after all, how real writers write, right?

I actually did believe that for a long time, until I became a writer myself. When I stopped to examine my own writing process, it looked a bit more like this: 

Although I still appreciate the ingenuity of those teachers with the color-coded cups, I can’t imagine where the heck I would put my Popsicle stick on a day like today when I am really writing. Writing is messy. The writing process isn’t linear. And it certainly isn’t the same for everyone. 

Take a look at some quotes about writing, written by writers. Do they resonate with you?

“Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of job: It’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins.”

                               Neil Gaiman

Ain’t that the truth. Sometimes, I’m just stuck. As a writer, I have learned that sometimes the words just don’t come. This often happens for me when a deadline is looming near. When I feel a certain pressure to get it done. I sit, my fingers hovering over the keys. I sit. And I sit. And I sit. The words won't come—not even crappy words. It is the quintessential writer’s block. I can’t think of a single word to write, so I shut my laptop and go get a cookie.

This quote from Neil Gaiman makes me feel better as a writer. It makes me think it is normal to have no ideas, no inspiration. It makes me think maybe I need to trust the process, to believe that next time I sit down at the computer, the words will come.

Do kids know this? I wonder. Do kids know there will be days when they sit down in writing workshop with the best of intentions, but the words might not come? Do they know that is normal? Do they know to trust the process, to believe that tomorrow, the words will come? Or do they get in trouble with the teacher? Do they get reprimanded for not working? Does their clip get moved to yellow? I am not suggesting we let kids spend hours upon hours of writing workshop just sitting there, staring off into space. What I am suggesting is that we let their writing process mirror ours in whatever ways we can while still upholding the expectations inherent in a classroom. I am suggesting we empathize a little when their words won’t come. And that we trust their writing process and believe that, eventually, they will write again.

Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.

                                                                                     Louis L’Amour

Not me. This doesn’t work for me. I am a planner. I am a thinker. Rarely am I able to start writing without a very clear vision of where I am going. I know this is sound advice for many writers, and I would imagine it is wise advice for young, reluctant writers. But for me this quote doesn’t ring true. So much of my writing happens in my head before my pencil ever hits paper (or fingers hit keyboard as the case may be). I choose my topic, I plan the structure, I decide on an opening line, and I know my main points before I start writing. Katie Wood Ray called this “envisioning” in her landmark book Wondrous Words (1999).  Like an artist envisions a painting on the canvas before dipping the paintbrush, so too I envision my writing. I cannot just start writing without knowing exactly where I am going. It is very uncomfortable for me to take an unplanned journey. Agatha Christie is quoted as saying, “The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” Now, that woman is speaking my language. I’m always planning, always thinking, always envisioning. I do most of my writing when I’m not writing.

I understand the impetus behind Louis L’Amour’s quote. I understand any writing is better than no writing. I just prefer to not write this way.

Do we give kids that choice? Do we let them decide how much time they can spend envisioning and thinking before writing? And for those kids who are able to just start writing, do we understand they are sometimes just turning on the faucet? Do we give them permission to write badly, just to get the water flowing? Or do we talk about how they aren’t giving it their best effort? Do we stand in the hallway telling colleagues this student is unmotivated and hates writing?

Here is what I want kids to know about writing: writers have a unique writing process. All writers approach writing differently. There is not a right way and a wrong way to write. There are many ways—endless ways—to approach the task of writing. The process that works best for you is the right process.

Let’s share our own writing processes with our students, even if they don’t fit some diagram we once saw in some textbook (especially if they don’t). Let’s talk, openly and honestly, about how we write. Through honest conversations in our classrooms, we can make the writing process real, authentic, and attainable for all our students.

Dana Murphy

Dana Murphy is a literacy coach in the south suburbs of Chicago. After teaching in the classroom for nearly 10 years, Dana is embracing her current role as a literacy coach in a K-8 building.  She also contributes to the Two Writing Teachers blog.