Wandering Around: The untidy parts of a real-life writing process

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If you teach writing, you’re likely very familiar with The Writing Process. Not a (lower-case) writing process: The Writing Process. The exact wording may shift slightly, but essentially it’s the same standard sequence that one must follow in order to fully be a capital W Writer: you plan, draft, revise, edit, and finally, publish. It’s almost always portrayed linearly or in a neat and tidy cycle. 

And if you do any kind of regular writing for an audience, you probably just snorted laughing because you know that there’s almost nothing about a real writing process that’s linear, neat, or tidy. Because you’re a writing teacher, you probably also recognize this in the way that, despite your most exquisitely planned lessons, your writing units often feel a little like herding cats. 

I do a lot of writing. I also tend to be a bit of a rule follower. And still my writing process feels more like one of those wandering lines in a Family Circus cartoon than a neat and tidy flowchart. Recognizing this (and accepting this as okay rather than a sign that there was something wrong with me) got me to reflect on my own practice and how that might show up in a classroom. Of course, I plan, draft, revise, and all that good stuff. But here are some parts of my writing process that make it less than tidy but also a whole lot more effective: 

Reading: If I’m not reading, chances are good, I’m not writing either. There’s something about the cadence of reading words – in any genre – that gets my brain to a writing space. Sometimes, I find added bonus in reading deeply and alike in terms of what I’m working on in my writing life. I might read a lot that’s in a similar style or on a related topic to get the writing juices really flowing, but I’ve also found that sometimes, any kind of reading can help move my writing along a little more smoothly. 

Talking It Out: Sometimes I realize I need to talk writing out like “I’m stuck and need to figure out where to go with this next.” Other times, ideas gel when I’m having conversations that are aligned with what I’m writing about. 

Making a Playlist: This can be literal or figurative. Sometimes, I’ll listen to a playlist of songs that set the right tone for me. Other times, my playlist is made up of a list of other texts that I’m in conversation with. In her book Writing Rhetorically, Jennifer Fletcher writes about supporting students in seeing sources as people by creating yearbook lists and interviews with them. Along those same lines, I make figurative playlists: what other texts are writing about the same issues? Who else is writing in structures that would be a good fit for what I have to say? For example, my playlist for this post would include Writing Rhetorically, Family Circus cartoons, other posts by my Moving Writers friends, and Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities by John Warner because so much of my approach to writing instruction is aligned with his central claim that we need to teach students how to write by leaning into what writers really do. 

Moving Around: This brings the idea of figurative wandering into a more literal space. More often than not, when I’m stuck, getting up to move is all it takes to get my brain firing again.

Peer Pressure: As I was growing up, this was definitely a term that meant something negative. But in writing, a little peer pressure helps me – but only if it’s from peers who matter to me. Having someone who knows I’m writing and will ask me how it’s coming every now and then is often enough to kick my butt back into gear when I need to. 

A Scrap Spot: I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that I can be a little wordy. Maybe a lot wordy. “Kill your darlings” is frequent writing advice that’s been attributed to a variety of writers and excerpts, but I have a really hard time doing that. It’s just so tempting (and egocentric?) to think that what I’ve written is too good to be scrapped. I recognize this in myself and from when I had students who would balk at the idea of rewriting a paragraph. “But I just wrote this!” they’d argue. And it would be tempting to chalk up their hesitancy on laziness, but I recognize it in myself, too. It’s hard to let go of something that you’ve written – because you wrote it, darn it! So, whenever I have a big project in the works, I have a companion document where I paste in all the stuff that originally gets cut out. I’ve made enough of these by now that I know that I’m very unlikely to go back in and rescue anything from them, but at least having them there gives me the peace of mind to know that the work I put into it won’t be lost forever. 

Just to make a messy process even messier, it’s important to point out that just because these are important parts of my process, it doesn’t mean that they’re important parts of every writing process. Part of what I love so much about writing is how very human it is, and that means it’s going to be different and messy and beautiful in a million different ways for every writer. 

What does your writing process look like? How have you built in opportunities for a less tidy writing process in your classroom? I’d love to hear from you! Connect with me in the comments below or on Twitter @megankortlandt

– Megan 

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