I was reminded the other day of the work of Don Murray (who, with Don Graves, I affectionately refer to as “the Dons” in my head). “Prewriting usually takes about 85% of the writer’s time,” Murray wrote in his wonderful essay, “Teaching Writing as a Process Not Product.”
As my students begin work on one of their first major essays this year, I keep coming back to Murray’s words. 85% of writing is prewriting. I remind myself of this fact as I panic a little, worried that it’s already October and my students are only just beginning one of their first major essays this year. What have we been doing for the last few weeks? I ask myself. Students need to write, and write a lot, in order to become better writers, so why did it take so long to get to this first essay? It’s already October! I panic a little more. It’s almost November! I start to hyperventilate.
And then I take deep breaths and remember Murray: 85% of writing is prewriting. And then I remember that it’s not as if my students haven’t been writing, writing, writing for the last seven weeks. “Never a day without a line,” another Murray quote, is our class mantra. We’ve been writing every day—filling our writer’s notebooks, creating lists, making observations, drawing heart maps, reflecting on memories, asking questions, lifting lines, recording wonderings, sorting through worries, playing with language, exploring writing territories, and most of all, finding voice. By doing all these things and more, students can begin to unearth those “moments worth writing about” that will carry them through the rest of the year as they become writers.
According to Murray,
Prewriting is everything that takes place before the first draft. Prewriting usually takes about 85% of the writer’s time. It includes the awareness of his world from which his writing is born. In prewriting, the writer focuses on that subject, spots an audience, chooses a form which may carry his subject to his audience. Prewriting may include research and daydreaming, note-making and outline, title-writing and lead-writing.
I know that some teachers worry that 85% of time spent prewriting is a lot of time. We live in an educational climate that often prioritizes product not process. Between the demands of writing for test-taking environments and collecting data to evaluate and assess, the quality and quantity of time it takes for prewriting can be easily set aside, lost.
Yet the longer I teach, the more I’ve seen how valuable that prewriting stage can be. Too often, when we rush the writing in an effort to produce something, the final product reflects that hurried process. There are few worse feelings in the world for a writing teacher than to see a final essay a student has produced and realize that it fell short—not because of the student’s own failings, but my own. That I didn’t teach this or that, that a mini-lesson on word choice was needed or that a mini-lesson on organizing leads would have helped.
Though I always build in conferring time with students, the writing conferences I’ve had with them have usually been in the writing stage, after they’ve worked through a draft and would like to get some feedback. This year, I decided to try something new and meet with students during the prewriting stage.
I asked students to come to class with 300+ words on their topic (or, depending on the student, 150 words on two potential topics, or 100 words on three). What I like about telling students to come in with X number of words instead of using the word draft is that those X number of words could be any part of the essay. Often, when students bring in a “draft,” they write what they see as the introduction. But writing isn’t always chronological; sometimes we write the middle first, or other times, the end. Sometimes we just start with a single line that we’ve been turning over in our heads. There’s a freedom to just “bring in X number of words.” (And at this point, 300 words is more than manageable for students; after all, they have all the ideas from their writer’s notebooks).
This past week, I have been meeting with students just on those 300 words. These writing conferences have worked so well, I wonder why I haven’t done them before. Because we’re still in the prewriting stage, we focus more on idea generation, which takes less time than if I had to sit and go through a full draft. I’ve found that I can take about 5 minutes or less per conference, and because I’m getting students some feedback sooner rather than later in the process, the payoff in their writing (I hope) will be higher. A few highlights from my conferences:
- When students sit down with me, I start with five words: “Tell me about your topic…” Those five words are all it takes for many students to “unlock” the rest of their ideas. As they talk, I skim quickly through what they’ve written. Because what they’ve written is short, it’s manageable. Often, what they’ve written is not much more than a free-write, but I have found that there are wonderful lines in each of them…there’s almost always a starting point and a place to go.
- As students talk to me about their essay idea, I just sit, listen, and write down everything that they tell me. Today, a student who is writing about being a “creature of habit,” began telling me where she got the idea, with one story and example after another about how she needs to do certain things in a certain order on certain days. It was fascinating. And as she spoke, I just listened and wrote down what she told me. After she finished, I showed her my notes and pointed out, “You’ve already written your essay. See…” Sometimes all a student writer needs is a way to talk through their ideas. We too often forget that talk is an important, and for some students, vital part of prewriting.
- Sometimes students come with two ideas, and through our conversation, we rule one (or sometimes both) out. If students don’t have much to say about their topic after some gentle prodding from me—What was it like to ___? Can you tell be about ___? Do you remember a time when ___?—then we can get to the important work of figuring out what that student really wants to write about. Yesterday, a student showed me 300 words about being a procrastinator and decided within the first 10 seconds that she didn’t want to write about that topic anymore. Instead, she said, “I was thinking about writing about grocery shopping.” When I hear a topic like this, I immediately want to know more. I respond with things like “Go on…” or “Tell me why…” and before long, through our conversation, the student has it figured out. She figures out that the essay isn’t really so much about going grocery shopping as it is about becoming an adult, about the choices she will face and soon, with senior year and college applications looming around the corner.
- As students tell me about their ideas, I keep handy all of our professional mentor texts next to me. I try to reference at least one of the mentor texts during our conversation. When one of my students tells me he wants to write about his love for fountain pens, I remind him of the rich description of Annie Dillard’s “The Microscope” and how Dillard’s intimate attention to detail reveals her passion. “How can you use concrete, vivid diction to tell us about your favorite fountain pen?” I remind the same student of Lars Eighner’s distinction between “scavengers” and “can scroungers” in “On Dumpster Diving.” To my student, I suggest he think about what distinguishes a fountain pen from others.
Again, because these conferences happen during the prewriting stage, they’re brief. I can get through most students in about half the time. But what makes the experience particularly powerful is that our conversation is focused on all the possibilities. The writing can go anywhere at this point. “Try this…” I suggest, “Or this.” Students have the inkling of the idea, and it’s still early enough in the process that they’re eager and curious to know where this idea might take them.
Conferring as prewriting is a small change in the writing process, but based on my conversations with my students so far, it’s proving to be a powerful one. And now that I’ve modeled the experience for this first essay, next time, students can confer with one another as a prewriting strategy. How do you use conferring to further the writing process? At what stages? What types of activities or experiences do you create to cultivate this part of the process? Please share in the comments below!