Some Good Ideas about Writing, Failure, and Rubrics

“Writing is a discovery.”

I had writer’s block this weekend. In the summer during Kean’s Writing Project, I had already read and blogged about Donald Murray’s “Teaching Writing as a Process Not a Product.” So, I had to reread Murray’s essay to glean new insights. What I found interesting about Murray’s essay is that he divides writing into “three stages: prewriting, writing and rewriting” and claims that prewriting takes up “85% of a writer’s time.” Yes, prewriting takes the majority of my time. Maybe, 75% of my time. Before drafting, I read the essays, think about what I want to say, think of a unifying theme. Then I ask, How are these essays connected? What fresh ideas can I provide? Then, the next stage is drafting, which Murray believes takes “only 1% of a writer’s time.” Not necessarily. During the drafting stage, I find myself simultaneously writing and rewriting so drafting takes up more than 1% of my time. (Please see a screenshot of my Revision History.) When drafting, I am also rereading, rewording, and rearranging sentences and paragraphs. A writer can approach writing in stages as Murray describes; a writer can also weave back and forth from drafting to revising as Nancy Sommers argues in “Revision Strategies for Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers.” So, in a way writing is both linear and recursive.

Drafting takes more than 1% of my time.

Eventually, I overcame my bout of writer’s block with a cup of tea and a dose of something to say. Writing is a form of discovery. Writing allows me to clarify and articulate my beliefs and values about writing, teaching, and myself. I am not too concerned about the grade nor impressing my audience, nor do not have the pressure of” publish or perish.” Unlike Geoffrey Carter (an assistant professor of English) who may be under pressure to publish. Carter churns out an illuminating essay on writer’s block by providing us with historical information on the term. He concludes his essay by advising writers to remedy writer’s block by “researching things before starting writing”; “playing with names such as Bergler-Burglar; or creating puns and anagrams.” Toward the end of his essay, Carter provides a remedy for treating writer’s block. He says, “When faced with the process of creating something, rather than just giving up, writing about anything that comes to mind — even if it is just fooling around with words — can sometimes motivate real work.” Dear writers, do not give up. Just start writing. Write anything that comes to mind. Fool around with words. Research words. Define words. He provides some good ideas on starting on drafts.

From this quotation, one can extrapolate that low-stakes writing like blogging may eventually lead us to “some real work in the future” — perhaps an M.A. thesis statement. One day when rereading my blog posts, I hope to discover a topic I would like to write about extensively. From my first drafts, I hope to stumble upon greater discoveries. This quotation also reinforces the idea of low-stakes writing in the classroom. Let students journal, write, doodle, draw. Let them create. And as Murray reminds us, “Shut up. When you are taking, he is not writing.” How true. At times, I need to remind myself to stop talking and allow the students to write. 

Most teachers are successful students. Most graduate students are successful students. Failure was not an option for them. They did not have to go to summer school, nor did they have to repeat a grade. They never experienced years of academic failure. That is a problem: perpetual academic failure. I am not referring to an occasional failure here or there, but years of failure. In my 10th grade English class, failure is not an option. Last year, none of my students failed English; none of my students attended summer school. Therefore, teachers must provide numerous opportunities for students to experience sweet success by giving them opportunities to rewrite, to provide extensions, and to provide unconditional encouragement and support. Therefore, I concur with Allison Carr’s perspective on failure. In her essay “Failure is Not an Option,” Carr urges teachers to “normalize failure” and to provide an “alternative view” of failure. She wants us to see failure as a conduit “to more creative, risk-taking, and an opportunity to explore a new direction,” especially when it comes to writing. I strongly believe that writing teachers are teaching process-writing rather than product-writing. By guiding students through the writing process, the students are more likely to take more risks and be more creative. By giving students opportunities to rewrite their essays, it will encourage a growth mindset. By giving quality rubrics before writing, it will communicate the teacher’s expectations to the students so that students are not second-guessing the teacher’s expectations. This approach will help in preventing failure, which could be a misunderstanding of the teacher’s expectations. So, Crystal Sands’ conclusion in “Rubrics Oversimplify the Writing Process” is spot-on: We must provide specific rubrics along with quality feedback. Rubrics should not be merely an assessment tool. 

Now, it is time for another cup of tea…

Let them experience sweet success!

To Err is Human, etc.

I thoroughly enjoyed this week’s readings. I remember once, some years ago, my cousin describing to me the “100 No’s” challenge, in which one must accrue 100 rejections to effectively eliminate fear of failure. At the time I thought it sounded a little ridiculous because the “natural” failures that I accumulated throughout the day were enough to send me spiraling most of the time. But as I’ve aged and, dare I say, gotten a little wiser, I have seen the benefits of failure as we call it. At Rutgers freshman year, everyone has to take a much-maligned English course called Expository Writing or “expos” as it’s colloquially known. Expos is a blender turned to “decimate” and you and your preconceived notions of writing, along with your self-esteem, are the things which are thrown in. Well like most other people, I suffered a crushing F on my first two papers. The course is designed to restructure how you think about writing and transition you from a high school writer to be more of a collegiate writer. But what it really did is prove to me that I was not all-that. I failed, and it was not something I was used to. But the course was not designed to let you fail and be done with you; it was designed to let you fail and build you up from it.

What I learned is that failure in writing does not have to represent the end, but that sure enough, it is just a part of becoming a better writer. Failure, as Allison Carr in her Bad Ideas About Writing piece pointed out, should be an option towards success and not the deciding factor on whether you can succeed. I do believe that it’s a question of risk-taking as well. The fear of failure, even if one reconciles that it may lead to bigger and better things, can be too much to bear, but I believe that it is because the notion of failure has been so heavily depicted as a negative thing that this is so. As another personal anecdote to drive this point across, I had a particularly difficult professor another year at Rutgers. His expectations were so rigorous that I nearly broke down at one point as I poured over a paper he had given a D, which I had thought may finally be the one he would like. We worked together (big asterisk here) to find the place that he believed I could be and in the end… I got a C in the class. It was a difficult lesson to learn, that sometimes working hard is not enough, but I did not leave that class feeling like a failure. Why? Because the last paper I did for him I got an A on. So he was a hard-ass and I still have nightmares about the anxiety I felt during that time. But what he also was, was someone who acknowledged that I was willing to fail and fight through it to achieve something. Failure, as Carr says, is a process, or at least it should be.

Speaking of processes, Donald Murray’s Teach Writing as a Process Not Product. These readings have proved quite parenthetical, as there is a lot of synergy between general conversations about reworking the idea of “failure” as part of a process, and conversations about teaching writing as a process. And both do make a good point that these questions of production and failure vs. processes is one of self-esteem. That we, when we grade or look most closely at a finished paper, are merely slashing at their already questionable self-esteem and identities as writers, is a fair point to make.

Murray alludes to a truth hidden in language, and brilliantly wagers that any writer uses their own language to reveal a truth for him/herself so as to be able to share that truth with others.

It opens the point that we have seen now in several readings that voice matters. We should be careful, Murray says, in how we approach a student’s writing not because we need to respect the product and how the student outputs, but because the process yields a truth about the student to themselves, and the voice which is found is more or less the real product. Murray’s is a call to arms for the draft, for the revision, for the teacher’s guidance but not their demands. But he is also realistic which is nice. There needs to be an end to the process per assignment so that, as he puts it, “the time to think and dream and stare out windows” leads to an actual piece of writing. Reading from people like Murray make me excited to teach because it continues to solidify for me my belief that even if the material is canned or the structure of the class stiff, room exists for each student to write on the same subject and each of them find a truth in their own voice as they go.

Cut me Some Slack: Risk and Fluidity in Writing

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H2O Flow
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This is a scene from Slacker, which was also on the promo poster for the film

First, I have to preface this blog with a commentary on Carter’s laudatory remarks for Slacker (1990). In “Writer’s Block Just Happens to People,” he opines that the it is a “masterpiece of the mundane” and that “nothing happens and yet the film works” (102). It is certainly mundane and there is no plot. I know that I am in the minority in disliking the film. There were some funny moments and I like the taxi scene where Linklater (the director and also the actor in the scene) explains that every choice we make includes an alternate path that we could have taken and a possible reality that will not be recognized because we did not take that path. That reminds me of interactive children’s books that require readers to make choices based upon certain challenges with which they are presented (https://www.cyoa.com, Choose Your Own Adventure Books). I find those to be great and inspiring to budding artists, including future writers. I understand that the movie may be viewed as a metaphor for the blank page, which provides endless opportunities for exploration. However, the film is composed entirely of disconnected strings of bizarre streams of consciousness by random, often paranoid individuals who do nothing but talk. There are also some gratuitous vulgarities that are not funny. The reviews for this movie were consistently great. Perhaps I am too traditional to “get it.”

While I support the point that writing does require time spent daydreaming and thinking, as expressed by Murray in “Teaching Writing as Process, Not Product,” writers can become too entangled in ideas, rather than setting drafts to the page (4). I also agree with Murray’s view that a majority of time should be spent prewriting, which includes research and other activities not involving the continuous wielding of the pen or keystroke. Carter, our ardent lover of Slacker, refers to the brilliance of an academic journal in which a blank page is published (100). It is entitled “The Unsuccessful Treatment of Writer’s Block” and it consists of one footnote: “published without revision” (100). I get the joke. I also understand Carter’s implied point that we should not be shackled by convention and that singular words and sounds can be inspiring (101). However, publishing a blank page? I’m in the camp that disagrees with doing this. Carter seems to have an almost “dump-all-the-Scrabble-tiles-on-the-floor” approach to writing to which I cannot relate. I do agree with his point that creativity is engendered by playfulness, which can lead to storytelling (101).

The other articles were based on solid points that were thought-provoking and important. Murray’s arguments hearken back to our initial reading of Lauer’s work. He is much clearer in explaining that writing should be taught in a manner in which instructors refrain from performing postmortems on students’ work; rather, they should allow them the to room to explore independent thoughts. I find his imagery of the autopsy to be vivid and perfect. Murray rhetorically asks instructors how they should motivate their students to take on the challenge of viewing writing as an organic process. He answers in a brilliant manner:

First by shutting up. When you are talking he isn’t writing. And you don’t learn a process by talking about it, but by doing it. Next by placing the opportunity for discovery in your student’s hands. When you give him an assignment you tell him what to say and how to say it, and thereby cheat your student of the opportunity to learn the process of discovery we call writing.

page 5.

Murray focuses on the crucial point of having students search for their own truths and find their own voices. It is important that we give students the opportunity to exercise intellectual risk and come to their own conclusions in their written pieces. Educators must not view students as blank slates, ready to be imprinted with robotic instructions. As the author aptly describes, students have already accumulated a great deal of knowledge about language when they walk into schools (5). Additionally, I found his connection between drafts and finished pieces to be enlightening:

There must be time for the writing process to take place and a time for it to end. The writer must work within the stimulating tension of unpressured time to think and dream and stare out of windows, and pressured time– the deadline– to which the writer must deliver

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Success is my only [expletive] option; failure’s not!

The two images above are tied to my analysis of Carr’s “Failure Is Not an Option.” As students, we have been conditioned to think that failing is shameful and that there is only one opportunity to shine (Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Un9HLDCTCs). Educators should not espouse this view because it can be demoralizing rather than motivating. Carr encourages us to see failure as an opportunity for avenues of new thought and creation (See quote regarding Thomas Edison above). Failure is most certainly not an indicator of the lack of “moral fortitude” (7). Carr eloquently states:

…We aren’t born pen in hand, fully primed to write sonnets or political treatises as soon as we get a grip on those fine motor skills. Writing is learned slowly, over a long period of time, and with much difficulty, and anybody who says otherwise is lying or delusional or both

78 (emphasis added).

Carr goes on to cite Malcolm Gladwell’s point in his great work, Outliers in explaining that it takes 10,000 hours to truly master anything (79). Students and instructors should live by this rule. This is easier said than done, given that competition and winning are an inevitable parts of life. Despite these realities, a writer must look within and make his or her own discoveries and failure and creative dissonance is part and parcel of the process. “Development is not linear,” a point that is echoed by the Sommers’ piece we analyzed last week (79). “Experimentation” and “question-asking” are essential to the process of writing well (80). It is important to note that this is an ongoing process. Our writing evolves as we evolve as human beings. Equating failure with a lack of willpower or skill is harmful, especially to budding writers. We should embrace risk (80). It is important that young people be taught this invaluable lesson.

In the process of encouraging risk, we should consider Sands’ piece, “Rubrics Oversimplify the Writing Process.” Writing is not a neat, paint-by-the-numbers process. If we strictly limit students to the five-paragraph model (as laid out in Kendra’s blog last week), we are hampering them. However, it is important for some structure (rubrics) to be provided, especially to “inexperienced writers” (265). However, even with students who lack a facility with language, we must take the training wheels away at some point. Reliance on strict modes of writing only leads to stilted writing and to what I referred to in my presentation as the Borezone.

I’m in favor of Sands’ “meet me in the middle” approach (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3mJkSqZbX4, Official Video for “Meet Me in the Middle”). Writing is like a relationship, one that we have with ourselves (ok, hear me out colleagues). We cannot impose rigid, one-sided rules that benefit just our own needs on our significant others (that smacks of insecurity); rather, we need to give relationships time to grow and the trust to flow; compromise is necessary in this process. However, exercising healthy guidelines is important. The same goes for writing. We must incorporate essential things such as thesis statements and proofs, etc. However, we cannot choke our own writing with artificial rules/rubrics just so that we pander to the nervous critics that come out to play in the small hours of the morning. If we do this, creativity is stifled and we will not grow. We must exercise both patience and bravery to crack out of the shells of strict rubrics. We must push ourselves to exercise creativity, irrespective of the profession we end up pursuing.

Writing as a Process, Rubrics, and Failure


Writing as a Process, Rubrics

I have no teaching experience in writing, but judging by what the teachers in this writing theory class say about how they approach this subject in their classrooms, I can tell that there has already been a significant shift towards what Donald Murray advocates in his essay Teach Writing As A Process Not A Product. Times have changed quite a bit since this was published in 1972, and while teachers have become more aware of and sympathetic to the challenges facing student writers, there is still much debate about the best way to encourage students to put their thoughts on paper.

Murray explains the 3 stages of the writing process- Prewriting, Writing, and Rewriting, but doesn’t give specifics on how to navigate each stage. Teaching writing as a process and not a product sounds wonderful and his advice about keeping quiet, being patient, discovering truth, exploring the world, might be helpful to students in higher creative writing classes, but I think more structure is needed in elementary grades. 

His implications of teaching writing as a process and not a product are lofty ideals that were pretty radical for 1972. I was in elementary school at this time and not an ounce of these concepts ever entered our classrooms. I do agree with Murray though that respect and responsiveness to a student’s potential is very encouraging, and while I love the idea of giving students the latitude to explore language, life, and whatever else it takes to write meaningfully, I also think that expectations and guidelines are needed to rein in all the freedom he proposes. Can the 2 peacefully co-exist?

This is why I agree with Crystal Sands that rubrics can be beneficial for the writing process. Yes, there are pros and cons associated with scoring tools used to assess how well students meet certain criteria, but when designed and implemented properly, rubrics have tremendous value.

Having a set of guidelines to follow and knowing expectations in advance takes a lot of guesswork out of the writing process. If you are new to writing and suffer anxiety over how to even begin a composition, a rubric may help you overcome your fear. In addition, it helps teachers lessen their grading course load as well as provides consistency and fairness in evaluating work from student to student. 

Sands was initially opposed to the use of rubrics, but after training, she supported their use, explaining that when students were involved in the design process they became more engaged in the assignments, peer review, and self evaluation. This level of satisfaction leads to a more relaxed atmosphere and is much more conducive to writing. I do agree, however, that rubrics do not capture all elements of writing and that many of these elements can’t even be discerned until seen. In addition, rubrics should not take the place of written feedback. Students enjoy reading comments and specific references to their work. If teachers do both, they will have more confident writers.

Failure as an Option

This essay about failure makes me think of the PBS instructional painter Bob Ross who calls mistakes “happy accidents.” I love watching him transform one of his happy accidents into something so beautiful that one couldn’t possibly conceive of it being the result of a mistake. He would most likely agree with Allison Carr that failure gets a bad rap. Failure deserves a place in education, especially writing. Unlike math, where there is always a right answer, writing is about discovery. You may write many drafts and revise numerous times and get very close to being satisfied, but there are no formulas that produce a perfect paper. Writing is fraught with setbacks. The entire process involves risks, and any time you take risks, there is always a chance of failure. Carr says failure is a good thing and should be celebrated. 

I agree with Carr on many points. 

I read an essay a few years ago about why there are so many suicides in top performing high schools and Ivy League colleges. The students were too used to getting straight A’s, and as soon as their grades started to decline, they suffered anxiety and suicidal thoughts. These kids never had to deal with failure on a regular basis. They never learned coping skills or resiliency early in their education. They, or their parents, put too much pressure on them to be perfect. 

Failure is part of learning and parents and teachers should give their kids some leeway for mistakes. Learning any skill takes a great deal of time and patience, and writing is no exception.

But should failure be normalized?

If we over stress the importance of failure, it could backfire, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wouldn’t stress to my own children how important failure is because I fear they won’t put their full effort into things. They do get lazy when they know they have an out. I would imagine that there are many kids like this, so I am not an advocate of normalizing failure. I fear the over accommodation of it will eventually lower standards in the classroom. However, I think teachers should be trained to handle failure in a more respectful and forgiving manner. I would also emphasize the importance of trying your best and not dwelling on negative outcomes. You only fail when you give up.

Writing is not Linear; Follow Your Passion

Stay tuned for my blog on this week’s readings. I just had to share my experience with Eva Lesko Natiello today at the Morristown Book Festival. She is the author of the brilliant thriller The Memory Box. I went to a talk about self-publishing that she led and she emphasized that we should JUST WRITE about what we are most passionate about. It does not have to be in sequence! Just write a scene that captivates you personally, you may use it at the end, beginning or in the middle. Brilliant advice, right? And perfectly in line for what we’ve been learning. I also wanted to share that I grabbed a random journal as I was running out of my house today and I referenced Eva’s advice about telling a story that you find to be compelling (I wrote this one year ago). Complete serendipity! See paragraph 2 in journal entry below. Writing Tribe, please go to my twitter for more!