I found that I can relieve the writing anxiety many of my students have by de-emphasising normative writing advice and facilitating an appreciative, non-evaluative awareness of their individual writing strategies.
This text has been cross-published in December 2019 at Unconditional Teaching.
When I talk to undergraduate students in my writing-intensive literature seminars about their experience with writing tasks, I often specifically enquire about their writing process:
How it went, what they did, how exactly they did it, whether it felt okay the way they did it, how much time it took to do it, how they structured the time spent writing, whether they were content with their results, if not why not, and so on.
I do this after particularly difficult challenges (and writing a five-page argumentative academic essay on literary analysis in English within two weeks is a very difficult challenge for our first- or second-semester students) to give students a chance to wind down, to see how others dealt with the challenge, and to reflect what they have learned about writing as academic practice.
A depressing pattern I observed early on in these sessions is that when students talk about their experience, they are often abashed and use derogatory language:
“I’m just not very good at X.”
“It’s very difficult for me to X.”
“I never get X right.”
“I always struggle with X.”
“I know I shouldn’t have done X.”
There is no ‘X’ that is more common than another, it can be writing an introduction, writing a conclusion, structuring an argument, practicing formal analysis or close-reading, finding secondary literature, referencing the literature correctly, formatting a paper in MLA style, overcoming writing anxiety, managing time efficiently, or any other aspect of writing.
When I ask them why they frame their work so negatively, they often say “well, I’ve been taught that the way to do it is different from how I do it – I know it’s bad, but I simply couldn’t do it another way”.
When I ask them whether they are reasonably satisfied with their results, they often say “yes, surprisingly it turned out okay”.
When I ask them whether they make this experience often that ‘surprisingly’ things that they think they do wrong yield okay results, they also affirm.
And when I ask why on earth they think that, when the result is just fine, the process that yielded the result is wrong – they laugh uncertainly and are taken aback by the fact that I don’t confirm their self-deprecating narrative of ‘doing it wrong’.
To me, this shows how harmful normative, formulaic writing instruction can be to students. They do have an awareness of their own process – but they frame it only in its deviance from how they’ve been taught to do it ‘right’.
This is all the more tragic because, in my experience, no one writes like any given advice on how to write says they should write. And from my own experience with grading a lot of academic student writing I know that whether a piece of writing is good or bad almost never coincides with a specific writing practice being used or not used – there simply is no certified (dys-)functional way of writing.
Unfortunately, students rather distrust their own process than distrusting the writing advice. The result is stress, guilt, and frustration that students have with themselves because of their presumed deviance from a desirable norm – even though the results they achieve with the method they are used to are at least adequate.
Reframing writing advice as process-discovery
In our teaching of writing, this kind of stress can be actively relieved when we, in a first step, put emphasis on reflecting the various strategies of writing, directly taken from the students’ experience.
Just letting students describe – without evaluation or advice – how exactly their writing process works, how long they spend on reading, researching, outlining, drafting, finalising, formatting, in what increments, at what time of day, yields an impressive amount of strategies and preferences. Students recognise themselves in some steps that their colleagues take and see differences to others – and so they gain meta-cognitive awareness of their own hugely complex skill set.
When we, in a second step, reframe their various processes in terms of individual writing strategies which can never be objectively ‘wrong’ and can only ever be assessed according to subjective criteria of efficacy, students can let go of the stress that stems from normative preconceptions about writing and focus on perfecting their individual process – if they think that it is necessary.
In this reframing, I don’t judge how operative a specific strategy is but let students judge this for themselves, individually: not all writers have the same criteria for ‘success’ or ‘failure’ in writing, so what they need for their own learning is very different. (See my article on strategies-based teaching for details on how I use the term.)
I think as writing instructors the biggest help we can give students is a heightened awareness of their individual strategies and the confidence to own their process. This will enable them to identify those elements of their writing process which they want to tweak and perfect to fit their needs more closely. With our expertise, we can then suggest specific practices as solutions for specific problems which students can test, adapt, adopt, or discard.