Sometimes, writers come to me with projects that they initially thought were going to be easy.
When they're introducing their piece to me, they might say something along the lines of, "I've always written this way. I'm not sure why I'm struggling with this thing this time." It's a valid concern for writers who are working in new mediums, writers who are attempting new tasks, even highly experienced writers who have worked on their craft for years upon years. Sometimes, the answer that the writer is looking for is within the explanations that they give. Other times, it takes more conversation and new methods to come to a viable conclusion.
Every writing task is going to be different and should be approached in a way that will best suit a writer's learning and communication style.
In my first article on Muriel Harris' Diagnosing Writing-Process Problems: A Pedagogical Application of Speaking-Aloud Protocol Analysis, I discussed Harris' take on the divide between researchers and practitioners and some methods by which the writing process had been researched at the time that she'd written this essay. The latter half of this piece examines sessions that she had with some of her students and how she helped them to work with different obstacles using speaking-aloud protocols.
More simply, Harris observed each student as they completed parts of their writing projects in front of her. Then, she and the student talked through some observations made.
One student experienced multiple blocks that prevented him from beginning his writing assignment. He didn't know how to start it. It wasn't for lack of ideas or unwillingness to perform the task. Harris noticed that this student often talked about "what the teacher wants." On one hand, a writer should be able to analyze a task given by an instructor and do their best to carry out that task to the best of their abilities. However, it's normal to be discouraged by the general writing expectations of the same instructor.
This essay was written in 1985, and this is still a common mindset among students. I would know, I was one.
It's easy to tell a student to write to their own expectations first and then revise with a copy of the task requirements. The mindset is entirely unconscious.
Harris' solution was to begin by presenting a different assignment. She gave this student the task of regurgitating some given information in a more accessible way. The student's comfort and ease in completing this exercise proved her theory that this student's main worry was thinking of the "right" thing to say.
I would criticize this section for not having as much of a resolution, but unfortunately, if someone were to completely unlearn it, different problems could arise. It's important to have good balanced judgement.
Harris' experiment, I'm sure, helped her student to be more self-aware of their difficulties in writing and to be more productive in their reflections and planning. There is no absolute solution for this student's way of thinking, but there are some strategies that can be included that can help the student to advance their work while managing their mindset. While the section ends here, I suggest that any student that thinks this way does not begin at the very beginning of their assignment. Instead, I suggest that they begin writing about a supporting detail [or a few supporting details] that they plan to use. The way that they write that section can inform the rest of the piece.
Another student was what Harris called an "incessant editor." This is another common mindset even with the popularization of Google Docs and the Word Processor. Editing software is still highly imperfect. I will spare a rant about Grammarly.
After this student's speaking-aloud session the given solution was to model different strategies and ask the student to repeat them. I found this section a little unclear as I am familiar with modeling as a teaching strategy, but I'm not certain as to how the modeling is being done.
It's common to want to edit something constantly, but second-guessing can get time consuming. What I would model, using the student's work or a nearby piece of writing, is prioritization. The first sentence of a paragraph should ideally be the topic sentence depending on the piece of writing, but this strategy doesn't have to be relegated to a topic sentence alone. One sentence would be chosen, and three questions would be asked about it.
What does this sentence do?
How does this sentence accomplish its goal successfully?
How can this sentence better accomplish that goal if it does not do so already?
Notice, I didn't ask, "What is the subject of this sentence?" If the sentence doesn't have a subject or has too many subjects, that can be a reason why a writer has not accomplished their goal. Asking what the sentence does and finding that it does too many things, for example, can guide a writer to this conclusion.
More simply, questions that will help a writer most will push and guide conversation and will not be sufficiently answered with one word. Then, the writer can work backwards. Instead of prioritization to revise, the writer can prioritize to advance. They begin with their goal and advance however they choose to a sentence or set of sentences that accomplishes that goal. Ideally, prioritization can become a habit and this writer can use different planning strategies to revise their work as a full piece. This strategy might best serve a writer when it takes place within a conversation.
Thank you to everyone who has given feedback to Purposeful Prose thus far!
Next week, I plan to engage with the third chapter of A Sense of Style, something that I've enjoyed doing! More projects for Purposeful Prose are in the works, and some will feature my wonderful colleagues, so I'm very excited about what we'll be creating together.
If there's anything that you would like to see covered on Purposeful Prose, please do not hesitate to send me a message or comment on any one of my posts. It will be easier for me to see them and credit you if you become a member! Members can also post on my forum and interact with one another.
As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Harris, M. (1985). Diagnosing writing process problems: A pedagogical application of speaking-aloud protocol analysis. When a writer cant write, 166-181.