Friday, January 29, 2010

How Do You Write?

Guest Blogger: William Donohue

This year marks my 10th anniversary in the “Writing Industry.” Since I graduated college in 2000, I have been drawing a paycheck from something I wrote. (Of course like most writers, I have had a slew of part time jobs too!) I have written for nationally published magazines and weekly, local newspapers. I have written feature articles on the “Top Ten Best Running Cities” that landed me radio interviews, and I have covered local zoning board meetings (more sleep inducing than a class after lunch).

Through it all I have developed and redeveloped my writing process. As Donald Murray asks and answers “Why do writers write? To inform, to persuade, to entertain, to explain, but most of all to discover what they have to say” (3). (Spell-check says that is a fragment sentence, but breaking grammar rules just might another reason that writer’s write.)

When someone asks me what I am writing now, I know they are looking for an exciting answer. Have I written a memoir about my 1,165 mile, month-long bicycle/camping trip from Philly to Boston and back? Maybe I started that “Great American Novel,” or finished the screenplay about teenage angst.

“No,” I disappoint them. “Most of my writing is ‘Academic’ now,” which allows me to sneak away to refill my drink as they divert their eyes to the floor, both of us feeling inadequate—them because of an incorrect assumption of their intellectual inferiority and me because of my intellectual inferiority. But what is it that I do spend my time writing? And more importantly, how does what I write inform my teaching as a writing teacher?

When pressed about my “Academic Writing,” I bring up the latest paper submission to a conference or periodical. This year I have both. (Commence shameless plug.) A soon-to-be-published book series and Creative Commons shareware entity entitled “Writing Spaces: Readings on Writings” ( has accepted a paper jointly written by myself and Lincoln University colleague and creative writer David Amadio. The essay entitled “The Voices in My Head: An Experimental Essay with Multiple Authors and Voices,” was also accepted at the College English Association Conference ( fittingly themed “Voices.” I learned more about writing from that experience than any single writing event in my life. Of course, it helps to when all I had to do was take notes as David sounded off on voice in creative writing then fill in some spaces as the representative “academic voice” in the essay. Here come the insecurities again. Luckily, David is a brilliant editor too, which says much about his popularity among the students.

Beyond that, most of my day-to-day writing is classroom related, specially writing comments on student essays. I joke and perhaps how I rationalize my procrastination to start that novel or finish that screenplay is because my writing is so bad because all I do is read bad writing. This week, I am in the middle of grading and, more to the point, commenting on 50 narrative essays. I have 25 more narrative essays coming in on Monday. Then, next Thursday, assuming every one of my students turns in the essay on time, I will have 107 essays to grade. Every single essay is a teachable moment, but what is my process for writing those comments? How can I solve such problems as indicating a poorly written sentence while not shattering a student’s confidence? How can I teach that student to develop a personal writing process, while not over-steering the writing to the “correct answer” (the way that would earn the student a better grade).

Murray breaks the writing process into three stages: prewriting, writing, and rewriting. Students are often amazed at the time breakdown Murray assigns these three stags. Prewriting, everything before the first draft, “takes about 85% of the writer’s time” (15). Writing the first draft is a mere 1%, which leaves 14% of the time for rewriting. Next Thursday 107 essays that are handed to me will hopefully have gone through this process in close approximation to Murray’s breakdown, or at least in a way that works for each individual student. The very last step in the rewriting phase that all 107 of those essays will share is a reflection paper.

They will reflect on the writing process. They will list the steps that they took, and they will comment on those steps.

“This is the corpse pose in Yoga practice,” I will try to entice them. “It locks in the practice.” This is my way of tempting the students to “know thyself.”

During my “prewriting” this week, I read Dr. Dade’s essay “Forwarding the Legacy of Horace Mann Bond” asking the faculty to reflect on the curriculum and “know thyself.” As a composition teacher at Lincoln University during a time when the subject of student writing is often discussed and there is a movement to take writing “Across the Curriculum,” I welcome your own “reflection comments.” As Murray suggests in an essay written in 1970, “more scholars, using information from the social sciences and the sciences, should be encouraged to contribute to the study of the writing process” (7). Do you write along with your students as my narrative essay/blog posting has allowed me to do this week? How do you approach writing instruction in your classroom? How do you write?

Works Cited
Murray, Donald. Learning by Teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Boyton/Cook, 1982.


  1. I really liked your comparison of reflection and the corpse pose in yoga! That's a great description of the power and purpose of metacognition. A few days ago I watched a very interesting panel discussion on YouTube: "50 Years of Writing Research: What Have We Learned?" One of the few points of agreement was on the importance of "engaged problem solving"--that we learn by doing but not unless we also reflect on what we've done. One of my attempts to encourage this is a portfolio assignment at the end of the semester, in which students include a reflective "writer's statement" for each item they include. I also use peer review groups a lot, in the hope that explaining strengths and weaknesses in other students' writing helps a student to understand her own writing better. But, like you, I don't write nearly as much as I'd like to, except for all the comments on student papers, few of which are ever going to be short-listed for the Booker Prize.