Teaching writing operations

If you are going to turn writing students into student writers, you have to teach them to write without thinking about writing. Without procedural automaticity, writers can’t focus on the content of what they want to say.

Make students compare writing to other skills

Students are more willing to put in time learning to write if they can see the similarity between what they must do to write competently and what they must do to become competent at some other skill that matters to them.
Learning to write operationally—that is, to be able to do writing as a few sets of interconnected steps that don’t need to be mentally triggered, physically performed, and mentally monitored as independent tasks—is essential for our students if we expect them to become competent writers.
Rather than tell students that, I use writing prompts to force not-yet-competent writers to discover a connection between learning to do writing and learning to do some other skill that they see as immediately more important to them than writing. 

Begin with a quote from Alfred North Whitehead

For this prompt, I begin with a quote from philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead in An Introduction to Mathematics. (Quoting Whitehead always impresses the department chair.)

“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”

After presenting the quote, I ask students what civilization means.  Then I ask them what advances  and operations mean in the context of the quotation. My students usually start with a dictionary and elaborate on its definitions.

Focus attention on small aspects of civilization

Because civilization is a huge topic, I tell students I want them to think about some tiny aspect of contemporary civilization they are familiar with and use their experience with it to illustrate how being able to do more tasks without consciously thinking about them improves its overall quality.
For example, if they play clarinet or chess, draw or do wood turning, work in food service or bookkeeping they undoubtedly have some tasks they must do routinely that can be considered that activity’s operations.

Give the writing assignment

I assign students to show from their personal experiences or personal observations that some small activity of contemporary civilization improves when participants in the activity are able to do more tasks without conscious thought.

Give planning aids along with the writing assignment

To support not-yet-competent writers, I give them a working thesis and a writing skeleton™ so they can quickly figure out what they might be able to write about. All they have to do is fill in the blanks.
The working thesisI know __ improves when [who] extends the number of operations [it/they/we] can do.
Writing skeleton™ point 1: I know __ improves when [who] extends the number of operations [it/they/we] can do because __ improves/improved when __ are able to _A__ without thinking about it.
Writing skeleton™ point 2: I know __ improves when [who] extends the number of operations [it/they/we] can do because __ improves/improved when __ are able to B without thinking about it.
Writing skeleton™ point 3: I know __ improves when [who] extends the number of operations [it/they/we] can do because __ improves/improved when __ are able to C without thinking about it.
Given the introduction described here and the planning aids, most teens and adults will be able to produce a 500-600 word rough draft in an hour. The drafts won’t be great writing, but each draft will drag students through the entire writing process.
Repeatedly dragging students through the writing process is what teaching writing requires.

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