A Bookshelf of Writing Books

How I Teach Drafting Papers

On the first day of the semester in my University Writing class, I ask my students to generate a research question and to ask as many of their fellow students the question before the class ends. The question can be anything: best place for pizza in town, favorite ice cream flavor, what to watch on Netflix. My question is the same every year: “What’s the hardest part of writing?” And the most frequent answer is, “Getting started.”

It’s hard to write. No one ever said it was easy, but many college students are only presented with perfect, completed pieces of writing. This leads to the feeling that their own writing needs to be perfect after a single draft. And then writing paralysis sets in. Staring at the blank page, unable to come up with any ideas, frustration. Or writing a sentence, erasing it, rewriting the sentence making only minute changes. And two hours later, the student has maybe a page completed.

This doesn’t work. Getting started shouldn’t be that hard.

So I teach a 4 stage drafting process. I heard about this process after observing another college intro writing professor teach this method to her own students. It was created by composition instructor Betty Flowers, after having very similar experiences as my own. Here it is:

4 stages of drafting

1. Madman: The crazy idea draft. Write crazily, write sloppily, and go on tangents. This is a discovery process. You don’t know everything you have to say unless you let yourself explore.
2. Architect: The designer draft. Narrow your ideas into a single focus and then shape your paper by grouping similar ideas together around that focus. This draft seeks to organize your thoughts around one point by choosing what ideas your paper will be about. Not everything can stay. If you’re an outliner, then this is when you’ll outline your paper.
3. Carpenter: The builder draft. Build up the paper by filling in the spaces your architect draft has outlined (with transitions, more evidence, etc.), combining your madman ideas into a logical, cohesive home.
4. Judge: The critic draft. Edits spelling and grammar errors. Edit as a reader instead of as the writer.

Most writers believe revising means editing for grammar. They don’t realize that grammar and mechanics should be one of the last things a writer looks at. That’s because what you’re going to write about has to come before how your sentences work.

In conjunction with teaching this drafting process, I also assign a chapter from Anne Lamott’s fantastic writing how-to book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life — “Shitty First Drafts.” In this chapter, Lamott describes a similar revising process, though she calls the first draft the ‘child’s’ draft, where you let yourself romp and play on the page. Giving students this chapter shows them that ‘shitty first drafts’ is normal. That’s how writing works. And they get to cuss in class.

I also tell students that this is a recursive process. Maybe you start your carpenter draft and realize you need a lot more about a point. Then you can go back to being a madman, and do a freewrite and see where it leads you.

A few students always object to the madman drafts. They like to outline, but what I’ve noticed about the students who love outlining is that their outlines are sprawling, wild things. They essentially work as madman drafts — freewriting ideas, listing points and quotes beneath those ideas, testing out topics. If that’s how the student likes to begin, I usually let them do so. As long as they’re still letting themselves freewrite and explore ideas and concepts, I don’t care what it looks like.

But most students find writing a madman draft freeing. They tell me they finish papers much faster, despite going through multiple drafts. And they like their papers better. That’s because it didn’t hurt to write it. They let themselves ‘play’ on the page, gave themselves permission to be imperfect. And all writers need that permission.

Here are more notes I give concerning these 4 stages:

Strategies for the Madman Draft
• List ideas, start freewriting. No editing sentences as you type.
• Be specific with details, tell stories, think about the stories and write out those thoughts.
• Can be stream-of-consciousness, in response to questions or ideas, and/or full paragraph meanderings.
• Ignore word count at first. If you run out of things to say, move on to another aspect of the topic, or reread without making changes and add to what you’ve written.

Strategies for the Architect Draft
• Reread madman draft, and choose a focus for your paper.
– Write focus in 1-2 sentences. This works as your thesis statement.
• Delete writing that doesn’t relate to focus.
• Organize into paragraphs around similar points.
– Suggestions:
o Make an outline
o Highlight similar ideas in different colors
o Print off a copy and cut out each paragraph and try rearranging it

Strategies for the Carpenter Draft
• Reread Architect Draft. Add evidence and details where needed.
• Write or rewrite the Introduction.
– Start specific, not broad.
o An anecdote/memory.
o An elaboration of your specific focus.
o Highlighting your research question and results.
• Write or rewrite the Conclusion.
– Point to broader implications. Why is the focus of this paper important to your audience?
– Propose a course of action, a solution to an issue, or questions for further study.
– If you begin by describing an anecdote or memory, you can end with the same anecdote or memory as proof that your paper is helpful in creating a new understanding
o Avoid saying “To conclude” or “In conclusion”
• Add transitions.
– Bridges between paragraphs
– Go at the beginning of paragraphs and connect the information from the previous paragraph to the new paragraph
– Usually phrases. Avoid 1 word transitions like “Next,” “Finally,” “Secondly,” etc., unless they add to the meaning of the sentence
– Example: “Though I failed my first paper in tenth grade English, I aced the research paper in History class.”

Strategies for the Judge Draft
• Make a list of the paper’s strengths and weaknesses.
• Reread and try to correct weaknesses.
• Read sentence by sentence from the END to the beginning, making spelling and grammar corrections.
• Read aloud, making corrections as you see them.
• Have someone else read it to you, making notes when you hear something off.

If you’re a teacher, feel free to use my notes. And even if you’re not a teacher, I find these methods aid in my own writing. It’s easy to forgot that drafting is a part of writing.

Reading Railroad: March’s Reading

Everything I read in March! 7 books total.

Novels

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson. Published in 2000. A Caribbean, carnival, multi-dimensional space travel science fiction novel that deals with abuse, rape, marginalization, colonization, and othering. Seem like a lot? It really is. A young Tan-Tan pretends she’s the Robber Queen — a carnival rogue — on a planet colonized by Caribbean immigrants. But when her father, the mayor, is arrested, both of them are forced into exile on a multidimensional ship that takes them to a place very different than the one Tan-Tan knows. I love the dialect and Caribbean culture, and I thoroughly enjoyed the last third or fourth of the novel. But it takes forever for the plot to get going. The first chunk could’ve been half as long. I did really like the end, though. This is my first Nalo Hopkinson, and despite the 3 stars, I will try more of her novels. I haven’t read anything like it before, and that’s reason enough to try out another. 3/5

Speak by Louisa Hall. Published in 2015. Multiple narrative threads rotate around contemplations of memory, love, loss, and the need for human communication and contact. Stephen Chinn writes a memoir about falling in love and building a true AI doll. Transcripts between Gaby and Mary3, an AI, are presented at Stephen’s trial. Ruth and Carl Dettman write letters to one another about memory and Carl’s computer Mary, without ever sending the letters. Ruth reads the diary of Mary, a 17th century US settler, to Mary the computer. Alan Turing writes to his dead best friend Chris’ mother as he struggles with Chris’ death and his own spirituality. Speak is a meditative novel, not one that gives closure to any of the characters. I liked that about it, but I also wanted to delve deeper into each character. Still, I would recommend it to people who enjoy AI and/or science-based novels. 3.5/5

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey. Published March 14th, 2017.  Another science-based novel, this one dealing with space travel. It’s also quite introspective, though I liked this one more than Speak, primarily because it reached a depth of character development I tend to really enjoy. Read my full review here! Definitely recommend. 4/5

 

 

 

Nonfiction

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay. Published in 2014. A friend and I attempted to read this together, but she kept losing her book, so I read ahead. I just couldn’t leave it unfinished any longer! Obviously, I’m a bad feminist friend. 🙂 We did have a couple of meetups before she lost the book, and you can read our discussions on my Goodreads review. I finished the book mostly thinking about how much I like Roxane Gay. She seems like an awesome person to know, and I would love to be in one of her classes. I don’t always connect with all her pop culture examples (my pop culture knowledge tends to be exclusively SF based), but I love her meandering approach and the things she said even if I didn’t fully understand the context. I could easily apply her thoughts to my own experiences. Definitely a must-read for feminists, or anyone unsure if they’re a feminist. 4/5

Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States by Eleanor Flexner. First published in 1959. Century of Struggle chronicles the woman’s suffrage movement in the US from pre-Seneca Falls to when women finally won the vote, more than 70 years after the first woman’s suffrage convention at Seneca Falls. Just to illustrate why books like this need to be read, I mentioned Seneca Falls to three or four people who had asked what I was reading, and they had no idea why Seneca Falls was significant. They’d never heard of it. And it’s no surprise. I’ve spent twenty years in the education system and minored in history, but I don’t recall the woman’s suffrage movement being discussed in a single class. While I did know about Seneca Falls before reading this (I learned about it on my own), there was so much about the movement I didn’t know, far more than what I did. I mean, I learned A LOT. The history of how women won the vote in the US is fraught with struggle and amazing women. It’s absolutely fascinating, and people need to know this history! 5/5

Poetry

Black Zodiac: Poems by Charles Wright. Published in 1998. Continuing my poetry reading from February. As with Chickamauga: Poems (the only other collection by him I’ve read), Charles Wright explores connections between spirituality, landscape, and art. He’s a master at the long line; his poems sprawl across the page, full of ellipses and dashes, beginning left and then right, utilizing the entire page. I kind of have to work at his poems, which is a good thing. 4/5

 

 

Short Story Collections

Uncanny Magazine Issue 14. Published in January 2017. I feel like with every issue of Uncanny I begin my review with — Another strong issue — but here it is again: another strong issue. The story that stands out the most is Maria Dahvana Headley’s novelette The Thule Stowaway, a chronicle of the last days of Edgar Allen Poe as told by Mrs. McFarlane, who has a creature trapped in her body. It’s very atmospheric, and there’s also a fantastic interview with the author. The essays also stand out as being quite good, with my favorite being an analysis of the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. You can read my review of all the stories on Goodreads. 4/5

Individual Short Stories

I did read 2 short stories this month — part of Tor.com’s Nevertheless She Persisted series — but I’m going to wait until I’ve read all of them before I give a review. So stay tuned to April’s Reading Railroad!

What did you read in March?