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.
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.