Setting the Bar Low: Teaching Students to Draft

As the summer begins to wind down for me (what, it just started? ah well, it’s almost over too), I’m beginning to put together my fall syllabi in earnest. I’m teaching two sections of first-year writing at a new campus, the College of Staten Island, and as with every campus, I need to tweak my usual syllabus to fit their unique requirements.

I’m lucky not to have taken a complete break from teaching over the summer. Though I’m not teaching a college course, I continued to work with the high-school student who I tutor in literature and writing throughout the year. And as we work together one-on-one, in a style of teaching that is necessarily very different from running a full class of 20-25 students, I am learning new tricks and strategies that I can now use in my college classes.

One of these is encouraging students to fully embrace the drafting process.

In the past, my college students have dutifully submitted first drafts, but as often happens, their revisions for the second and third drafts are minimal. They fix what I commented on, but no more. If I point out a logical flaw in one sentence, they will fix that sentence, and not much else.

The problem is that they think of their first draft as “nearly-done.” I don’t. I don’t even want it to be nearly done! I want to see their thoughts and nebulous ideas early on, I want to see their messy thoughts, so I can guide them in the early stages to better and stronger logical arguments. As Professor Mark McBeth says to his graduate students (me included), “send me pages, no matter how messy and chaotic. I want to see your process” (paraphrased!).

Although I of course scaffold my assignments and have students do initial low-stakes work, their first drafts ought to be messier than they are. This will result in far stronger final drafts, which seems counter-intuitive to them. I even read Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” with them, but they’re still afraid of submitting sub-par work.

So how to encourage students to turn in imperfect work?

I may have stumbled on a method while dealing with a slightly different obstacle that my high-school student was struggling with.

My student and I work together on her essays. Her drafts work differently than my college students’, because I can give her more direct and immediate guidance than I can provide to 25 students at once. She can write her paper section by section, if need be, and build better and stronger sections without having to wait for my feedback. We can slow things down and really get into the outlining and organization and sources etc., in far more detail than I can with a full class.

But when the time comes to write something – anything! – she becomes paralyzed with fear of not getting it right, and she has a hard time beginning to write. At the end of one session, I told her I wanted her to write an introduction in preparation for our next session. I saw her hesitation, and asked how she felt about that.

“Okay, I guess…?” she said. “I just think it’ll be horrible.”

I seized on that and said, “Okay, you know what? That’s your assignment! Write a horrible introduction!” We had a good laugh, I revised her written homework assignment, and she sat down later with gusto to write a “horrible” introduction.

Was it horrible? Heck, no. It was nearly perfect. But she had had fun with it! And when I pointed out one issue and taught her how to correct it, she was more relaxed – after all, I was critiquing a paragraph she had written to be horrible! She didn’t have to take critique of a paragraph she had attempted to write perfectly. We adopted this method for a few weeks, joking about how her task was to write “horrible” drafts, and to then polish them up – but remember to make them horrible first!

After a while, she casually commented to me that somehow, it’s easier to write when she thinks her task is to be bad. I laughed about her phrasing of “being bad.”

“It’s liberating to be bad, isn’t it?” I joked. And her face lit up. Yes! It’s liberating!

Seriously, then, I explained that yes, it is liberating to expect our work to be bad – if you’re not aiming for perfection at the first try, you’re freed to actually write and perfect it later.

And that’s when it occurred to me that I could adapt this method – which I discovered accidentally! – for use in my first-year writing classes.

I have two activities in mind:

Activity 1: I will use this McSweeney’s piece to show my students the typical essay gaffes. I have used this in the past, and my students found it hilarious and good-naturedly ‘fessed up to being guilty of using many of the tired cliches. It’s difficult to get through even the first paragraph without recognizing tics that many of them use, and it’s so over-the-top ridiculous that it induces ridiculous laughter:

Since the beginning of time, bullshit, flowery overgeneralization with at least one thesaurus’d vocabulary word. In addition, irrelevant and misleading personal anecdote. However, oversimplification of first Googled author (citation: p. 37). Thesis statement which doesn’t follow whatsoever from the previous.

After reading it and hopefully becoming more relaxed through laughter and camaraderie, students will then be put into groups and tasked with writing an essay about the theme of the class – but making it as horrible as they can, with as many cliches as possible, using the McSweeney’s essay as a model.

If all goes well, this should be a side-splittingly fun activity. I expect the room to be loud and boisterous.

Since both of my sections this fall will be one-day-a-week, four-hour-long sessions, I am trying to build as much fun and physical activity into the lesson as possible, to break up the monotony and to keep energy levels high. I also want to do this activity on the first day, when everyone is new to the class, to each other, and to me. If all goes well, in addition to being fun it will help create a cohesive group and set the tone for the rest of the semester.

The result of this will be at least four essays that are ridiculously shitty. I will post these essays to the (private) class blog so that students can revisit them throughout the semester.

Activity 2: I will assign a first draft of their first essay, reminding them that their first draft should be shitty. I will stress that it should not be ridiculous and cliched as their fun activity was. Rather, the point is not to worry about avoiding those cliches. The focus should be on getting the ideas down and having something to rip apart and redo for the next draft.

I hope that by that point, my cheerful “now go home and write a horrible first draft” will have the desired effect, and that students will feel more free to play with ideas in the first round so that we can begin to polish them up for the second draft!

Update to come in September…. 🙂


Postscript: As with any planned series of activities, I will have to gauge how the first one goes before I decide whether or not to implement the second. If either class doesn’t respond well to the “horrible essay” assignment, I will of course not go on to use that language for their first essay draft.

Image from here.

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