Four Lessons About the Writing Process I Didn’t Believe Until I Started Teaching

“I’ve spent like, a total of 12 hours on this essay and my instructor wants me to revise it again! This is the third draft! It has to be good!”

-anonymous student

Four Lessons About the Writing Process I Didn’t Believe Until I Started Teaching

By Sara Codair

As a professional tutor working in a busy community college writing center, I often find myself repeating the same bits of advice to students over and over again. However, even as I am telling students “be specific” and “don’t procrastinate,” I am wondering if I follow my own advice when writing fiction.

After some careful, end of the semester reflection, I not only realized that the writing advice I doll is applicable to fiction writing, but also that many of those insights emerged from my experience working with students, not the workshops, MOOC’s and traditional classes I’ve been taking since middle school

13012832_10100946589234875_2760158947002530692_n1. You have to start somewhere

Many developing writers stare at blank screens for hours wondering how to begin. They type the first line, delete it, type it again, delete it, and repeat this process all night then show up to class the next day with nothing.

There is one student I worked with regularly throughout the fall semester. His process is something like this: Write a paragraph, ask the tutor if it is good. Write another paragraph, ask the tutor if it is good, repeat.

Others like to free write stream of consciousness style, make a few changes and turn their paper in, think it’s gold then turn it in.

The ones who get A’s are somewhere in the middle. The do the stream of conscious free write, then revise like crazy before letting someone else look at their essay. They get feedback from their peers and from a tutor, then turn the essay in.

Don’t let anxiety stop you from writing, but also make sure you revise before you let your friends and critique partners read it and revise more before you send anything out to publications.

2. Time is your friend. Procrastination is your enemy.

There are two common breeds of college student: the ones who wait until the night before (or morning before) the paper is due to start, and the ones who start it the minute it is assigned.While those who start early always write better than the procrastinators, starting early doesn’t guarantee an A, or in my case, publication.

My novel is on its 8th draft, and I’m still not happy with it.

I revised “Above the Influence” close ten times before submitting to Mash and getting shortlisted. Even then, my feedback report revealed the judges still found problems. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s terrible, just that I may have needed 11th or 12th draft in order to have a winning story.

Revision takes time. You have to write the story. You have to let it rest. You have to revise. Let it rest again. Repeat. If you put off starting the story, or wait until a few minutes before a deadline, then you are not going to get a good draft.And even if you do all this, it still might not be good enough. Or maybe it might be good to you and your critique group, but not so good to the slush goddesses, because after all, writing is subjective. What works for one person may not work so well for someone else.

3. Your story is yours. Don’t write what you think people want you to say. Write what you want to say

One mistake I have seen students make over and over again is just writing what they think the teacher wants to hear. I get it – they want a good grade – but it doesn’t work.

Fiction writers do this too. They wonder if their story is marketable, and make the mistake of writing what they think their readers want. Let’s face it, we all want to get published and make money, but if we just write what we think other’s want and don’t stay true to ourselves, our craft will turn into our crap, almost literally, if you really think about it: consume suggestions, digest them, excrete them.

Your story should be your baby, not your shit.

A story I wrote called Costume Connection got six rejections before getting accepted by Centum Press. Two of those rejections came with feedback. The first feedback report had some rather helpful suggestions that helped the piece grow into the version that got accepted. The second had some comments that just didn’t make sense to me. I decided that the piece just didn’t work for those people, and I wasn’t going to change it because of them. I’m glad I trusted my gut, and am looking forward to seeing a story of mine published in a tangible print book

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Stories need naps, just like kittens.

4. Let it rest, leave time to proof read, let it rest, cut clutter, let it rest.

Your draft is detailed and specific. You’ve revised several times. You are happy with the content and think you have caught most of the grammatical errors. Other people have read it, possibly more than once and most importantly, you are happy with  the result.

You are note done.

You are note done.

Put it away.

Hide the file.

Just don’t look at for at least 24 hours. Try to leave it alone for a week if you can.

When you just can’t stay away from the thing any longer, that means it is time to edit and revise. Catch all those grammatical errors. Make sure you are showing, not telling. Restructure your sentences so you have minimal glue(words that don’t carry meaning). Replace as many adverb/verb pairs as you can with specific verbs . You don’t have to get rid of them all, but just remember a strong verb kicks ass.

Leave it alone for a few days. AGAIN.

Read it with a fresh eye. Make any changes you think of whether they are on the sentence level or the story level. Let it rest again. Revise again.

Whenever I talk to teachers who aren’t writers or English teachers, they seem to be under the impression that college students can’t write. This isn’t because the students can’t compose good essays. It’s because they don’t have time to let the draft rest. When they get a paper back they haven’t seen in a week, they could revise without seeing half of the instructor’s comments.

Even a night of rest would have made the difference between an B and A. There have been plenty of times when I have sat down in the writing center with a more who printed the paper out at night, and brought it to me in the morning, a couple hours before it is due. As we are reading through the paper, the student see’s all the sentence level errors she missed when she did her 2 a.m. proof read.

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While different genres of writing follow different rules and styles, the process is more or less the same whether you are writing a college research paper, an article or a short story. Once you understand the style and structure of your genre(s), you can continue to improve your writing by studying and improving your process. Be mindful of what you do. Practice metacognition. Journal about your process. Read what other writers have written about heir process and compare it to what you have written about your own. Revise the process accordingly. Write on!

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4 thoughts on “Four Lessons About the Writing Process I Didn’t Believe Until I Started Teaching

  1. abarn003 says:

    Oh my gosh. I know exactly what you mean! I love liberating students when I teach them recursive writing processes. I also love doing peer review workshops and inksheds with them. It’s amazing how they react when they aren’t writing in a vacuum.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Artemis says:

    I agreed with most of this…but I don’t agree that it’s impossible to write an excellent story the first time through. Maybe people who do that move slower, or pay better attention the first time, but they do exist. Just saying. By the way, I’m not one of those people; generally I go back over and over again for revisions.

    Like

    • Sara says:

      Those people do exists, but they are rare, and a good essay still has room for improvement. And if you are going slower, you are probably editing and revising as you go, so its a first draft that isn’t exactly a first draft.

      Like

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