Archives For #whyIwrite

Here is a dramatic reenactment of writing in schools (with translations) taken from the esteemed writing teacher Donald M. Murray‘s 1982 essay The Maker’s Eye: Revising Your Own Manuscripts:

STUDENT: “It’s done!” (*phew*).”

TEACHER: “Did you revise?” (translation: “Did your ideas emerge and evolve? Did you clarify your meaning?”)

STUDENT: “I finished it!” (translation: “Just give me a grade! I’m done.”)

TEACHER: (*sigh*) “Hand it in…it’s due” (translation: “Need to move on.”)

In his essay, Murray explained, “When students complete a first draft, they consider the job of writing done – and their teachers too often agree.”

Murray contrasts these attitudes with the attitudes of professional writers who after completing a first draft, “usually feel that they are at the start of the writing process.” He quotes the writer Roald Dahl as saying:

“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.”

Murray’s point was that in the professional writer’s world, or the real world, writers have time… or they find time… in order to make time for revision.

That kind of dedicated time for revision that exists in the real world does not exist in schools. Classroom periods are organized most often in chunks of 42, 60, or 84 minutes. The result is that the authentic revision on a piece of writing will take more time than the scheduled school day offer (after all, “there is a curriculum to cover!”)

Complicating the need for dedicated time is the demand for student writing to grade in order to meet assessment schedules: progress reports, quarters, mid-terms, trimesters, etc. That need to grade everything a student writes-drafts, rewrites, final product- is the least authentic part of the writing process.

Just check with Mark Edmundson in his book Why Write?  In the 30 chapters Edmundson uses to answer his question Why Write? the one reason missing is To Get a Grade. In other words, the major reason that students write in school is the one reason missing from the long list of reasons a writer gives for writing.

Murray also noted that students see revision “as an indication that they have failed to do it right the first time,” and to be honest, many teachers have not worked to disavow their students of this belief.

So how to improve teacher and student attitudes towards revision? When to find the time?

Why not start on National Writing Day?

National Writing Day is based on George Orwell’s essay, “Why I Write” and is celebrated annually in October.  Orwell understood the difficulty in writing (“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle”) to edit out the “purple prose” or those “sentences without meaning.” Orwell saw revision as necessary for good writing.

So, on this National Writing Day, (10/20/17) you may decide that students do not need to start something new in response to the suggested “Why I Write.” But if they do, they could practice revising their reason(s) why they write.

Lesson Suggestions for National Writing Day

Teachers can take this opportunity to promote revision, and here are several suggestions for highlighting the importance of revision on National Writing Day:

Share famous author revisions to show how they revise. Some suggestions include:

  1. Use the audio and images” in “An Explanation of The Westing Game Manuscript Materials” that show the revisions made by YA author Ellen Raskin for The Westing Game.

     

  2. Share the well-circulated image of JKRowling’s revision process for Harry Potter’s Order of the Phoenix.
  3. Share Kate DiCamillo’s drafts of the first chapter of Because of Winn-Dixie that also has her entertaining comments on each of the five revisions.
  4. Share (with mature audiences only) the author John Green’s YouTube video explanation on “Why First Drafts Suck!” as he takes on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)
  5. Prepare for Halloween with the greatest horror story ever told by experiencing the chilling revisions on the draft of the opening lines of Chapter 7 of Frankenstein. There in Mary Shelley’s handwritten text  contains the spark of life for the Monster, “It breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”
  6. Extend an invitation to social studies teachers to share historical revisions such as FDR’s speech delivered on December 7, 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Notable is the revision of the phrase “A day that will live in world history” for the iconic “infamy.”
  7. Include science teachers and share drafts from the prolific science writer (astronomer, astrophysicist) Carl Sagan from the website of the Library of Congress Manuscript Divison. There are twenty full drafts of his works in the archive including 355 pages of the first draft of his novel Contact,  with revisions, in entirety.
  8. Contrast E.B.White’s opening line “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” in Chapter 1 of Charlotte’s Web with his draft #2…and see which students prefer.
  9. Model your own revisions in your writing!

Other suggestions include:

1.Use the entire class period to let students revise a piece they have already written…. (and no grading!)

2. Have students respond to quotes about revision made by authors:

  • James McBride (The Color of Water): “Writing is the act of failing at something all the time.”
  • Ernest Hemingway: “I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms 39 times before I was satisfied.”
  • Georgia Heard (poet): “Students need to be reminded that revision isn’t merely making a few cosmetic changes. Revision is seeing and then reseeing our words and practicing strategies that make a difference in our writing.”
  • Pearl S. BuckI(“The Big Wave”) “If you start to revise before you’ve reached the end, you’re likely to begin dawdling with the revisions and putting off the difficult task of writing.”

 3. Build a lesson on the synonyms for revision; have students discuss the differences in their meanings in order to answer the question, “Why I Revise”:

  • emendation
  • editing
  • updating
  • correction
  • change
  • review
  • amendment
  • modification
  • alteration

National Day of Writing: Friday, October 20th (#whyiwrite)

Whatever you choose to do with students, engaging them in the practice of revision IS engaging them in the practice of writing. Revision is the authentic writing that students need to do, so that they will, as Murray explained, grow to understand that “each word has the potential to ignite new meaning.”

For this 9th Annual National Writing Day, the question “Why I Write” could be answered with “in order to have something to revise,” as all writing is rewriting. This could give students and teachers just a little more time as Donald Murray had hoped, for revision, for “time for just another run at it, perhaps then…”

(This post? A total of 16  17  18 revisions over four days…”perhaps then” indeed!)

#Why I Write

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It’s not because writing is fun…writing is hard.

It’s not because I have the time to write….(so far the first two sentences in this response have taken over two days to construct so they sound the way I would like them to sound).

It’s not because I like the end product…(I still think the aforementioned two sentences need more work). In fact, I usually think of a better ending several hours after publishing.

It’s not because I take unnecessary risks. I am self-conscious; I self-censor. I do not want to be misinterpreted. Writing on a blog that is public is a bit like performing linguistic acrobatics without a net.

 

So, why do I write?

I write because I cannot provide support in reading and writing for teachers and students if I do not read and write myself. So, I write publicly as a performance task….as an “authentic task”, one that I might assign to students.

I write because I want to remember my own ideas (I am getting forgetful).

I write because the act of completing a sentence, a paragraph, or a blog post in this distracting world demands focus, even if that focus is for a brief amount of time.

I write because writing forces me to research. For example, while I was writing the phrase “linguistic acrobatics” above, I thought of my favorite example of linguistic “acrobatic” writing…an excerpt from a brilliant conversation written by E.B. White for Charlotte’s Web. To get the quote, I had to spend a little time to research the quote from the text (not the film!)

In this exchange, the spider Charlotte plans how to save her friend Wilber, and she listens for suggestions from other farm animals about words she could write in her web:

Goose: “How about TERRIFIC, TERRIFIC, TERRIFIC?”

Charlotte: “Cut that down to one TERRIFIC and it will do nicely. I think TERRIFIC might impress Zuckerman.”

Wilbur: “But Charlotte, I’m not terrific.”

Charlotte: “That doesn’t make a bit of difference. Not a bit. People believe almost anything they see in print. Does anybody know how to spell TERRIFIC?”

Gander: “I think it’s tee double ee double arr double arr double eye double eff double eye double see-see-see-see.”

Charlotte: “What kind of acrobat do you think I am?! I would have to have St. Vitus’s Dance to write a word like that into my web.”

Nevertheless, the spider Charlotte does weave the word terrific into her web. She writes and because she writes, Wilbur is spared.

What better reason to write then the one that E.B. White offers?   Writing saves lives.

 

What, How, and Why do you write?

The National Council of Teachers of English, The National Writing Project, The New York Times Learning Network, and the Teaching Channel want to know.

Today, Tuesday, October 20th, 2015, people everywhere are encouraged to respond to the prompt asking What, How, and Why do you write as part of the Seventh Annual National Day on Writing.

Reponses to will be shared in in a “tweet up” during the day using the hashtag #whyIwrite.

I have, of course, my own reasons why I write, but first I would like to share two statements made by the senior media correspondent for CNN, Brian Stelter at a Q & A session at the Inspire Expert Event at the NY offices at About.com (10/17,15). This event brought together the experts that write for the About.com website.

stelterBrian Stetler has been a media reporter for The New York Times and the editor of TVNewser He currently hosts the CNN Sunday morning show Reliable Sources.

In this Q & A session Stelter’s two statements on writing stood out, not because they were surprising, but because they were not surprising, especially for any of the other writers in the audience.

His first statement addresses the Why and How of the National Day of Writing prompt:

“The only way for me to sound smart on TV is [for me] to write all week long.”

This first statement speaks the importance of writing as a process for learning. Because I am an educator, I am expected to promote writing everyday at every grade level and in every subject. Because I write,  however, I can attest to how much more I learn about a topic when I write about that topic. Practicing writing is no different than practicing math facts or practicing for an athletic competition. Writing more improves writing.

Stelter’s second statement addresses the What of the National Day of Writing prompt:

“When I am writing and producing the stories, I discover another great story that has not been written yet, and I can’t wait to get it started.”

This statement by Stelter supports writing as a process of discovery, of finding out what one thinks, of enthusiastically embracing new ideas, of living with the creative disruption of ideas.

When I taught the Advanced Placement English Literature class, the timed in class essays that students drafted would often begin with one idea (thesis) in the opening paragraphs that would mature and change midway through the essay. Somewhere in the middle of this rough drafted essay would be this creative disruption-a new idea- like the discovery that Stelter claimed he found in writing. In these drafts, each student wrote his or her way into the new idea and (usually) developed a more confident position as he or she wrote.

Such an essay would conclude making a point different from the original thesis, a surprise to students who discovered a common experience- “I didn’t know what to write until I wrote it.” While this in class writing exercise from my students produced a series of poor to average drafts that needed revision, there was evidence of great thinking on these papers.

That is what writing is. Writing is thinking on paper.  Brian Stelter explained that thinking. Writers understand that thinking.

So What do I write? I write about education.

How do I write? Daily (mornings are best!)

Why do I write? I write to know what I think.

Happy National Day of Writing!